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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 9

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

Hard to believe, but the fantasy baseball season is already coming to a close. While it wasn't the long slog we normally love, we can at least appreciate it was here. This week we're looking at a few pitchers who could help you take home some hardware after posting solid starts last week. Youngsters Keegan Akin and Mitch Keller tossed some impressive outings, while Madison Bumgarner turned in his first good start of 2020 after what has been a disaster of a season for MadBum. In addition to their ROS outlook I'm going to look at the pitcher's potential value for 2021, as next year is already on the minds of many fantasy baseball addicts.

Roster percentage is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 09/21/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

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Keegan Akin, Baltimore Orioles

9% Owned

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 13.2 IP, 4.61 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 13.1% K-BB%

09/16 vs. ATL: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K

Keegan Akin carved up the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, putting up a career-high nine strikeouts over 5 innings. A mid-tier pitching prospect in the Baltimore organization, Akin has found early success in the majors, putting up a 3.38 ERA through his first six appearances. Now, the young lefty is staring down a two-start week during the final week of the regular season, and with availability in over 95% of leagues, he could wind up being a crucial difference-maker in championship matchups.

A second round pick back in 2016, Akin was viewed by scouts as a back-end starter or possibly a bullpen arm. He works with a three-pitch mix consisting of four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup. The fastball averages about 92 MPH on the gun, but with an average spin rate of 2390 RPM, Akin’s fastball is firmly above average and can allow it to play better than its velocity. The really interesting piece of Akin’s repertoire is his slider, because it’s more a slider-curveball hybrid. Here is an few example from this start.

With that big, looping movement the pitch resembles a curveball to the naked eye, and it shows up in the data as Akin’s slider has 49.5 inches of vertical movement, a top ten mark among starting pitchers. This type of movement has allowed Akin to throw the pitch to opposite handed hitters with confidence, and is a big reason Akin has held righties to a .232 BA and .318 wOBA, very respectable numbers for a rookie left-hander. Overall, batters have mustered just a .167 BA, .172 xBA, .250 SLG, and .214 xSLG against his slider. While those numbers are impressive, the 25.9% whiff rate is quite poor for a breaking ball and should have us questioning how real the strikeout numbers are for Akin.

High strikeout numbers have been the biggest surprise with Akin’s game thus far, as his 31.6% rate would be top-15 among starters if he had enough innings to qualify. The slider hasn’t been the big source of strikeouts, as Akin had just three swinging strikes with it in his most recent start. Instead, it’s been his changeup and fastball doing the heavy lifting strikeout-wise, with 16 combined swinging strikes between the two pitches in his start against Atlanta. The changeup especially has been key for Akin, since he has a 38.2% whiff rate and 34.2% chase rate with the pitch thus far. He uses it almost exclusively against righties, which has helped contribute to his success against opposite handed batters. The pitch itself has solid movement, especially with its 15.9 inches of break, putting him solidly above average. The changeup’s metrics show that it could play as a strong breaking ball itself and pick up Akin’s slider in terms of strikeouts.

While there are plenty of positives with Akin, there are also some red flags with that should concern those looking at him hoping to squeeze out a few good starts. First, is the legitimacy of the strikeout numbers. The 26.8% whiff rate on Akin’s fastball is wholly unsustainable given his 92 MPH fastball velocity. His 83rd percentile spin rate on his fastball helps, but the whiff rate on his fastball could easily be 10% lower or more over a longer period of time.

The second thing scary about Akin is his flyball tendencies. His 36.4% groundball rate would be the seventh-lowest among qualified starters if Akin had enough innings to qualify. Akin has had a groundball rate under 40% in each of the last three seasons as a prospect. He survived because he was able to generate infield flyballs more than 20% of the time, but he’s had just a 10.5% IFFB rate in the majors. Akin has been lucky to have surrendered just one home run thus far, especially considering his home ballpark and his division.

The third thing that worries me about Akin is a historically bad walk rate. His walk rate has been north of 10% in each of the last three season as a minor leaguer, and is at a bloated 11.3% mark so far in the big leagues. That combined with potential home run regression and suspect strikeout numbers on his fastball make Akin’s numbers look shaky thus far. He could still be used in a league where volume is king, such as a points league, but I’d be nervous about what Akin could do to my ratios in Roto, especially my WHIP. If two so-so starts have more value to you than one good one, then roll the dice on Akin and hope for the best. Otherwise, there should be better options for a team competing for a title.

Verdict: Akin’s changeup looks like a solid strikeout pitch, but poor control and possible home run regression make hima dicey play during the final week. He’s a volume play only since he has two starts in shaky matchups, at the Red Sox and at the Blue Jays. Both teams have been above average against lefties this season, and both ballparks are tough pitching environments. Long term, he looks like he could stick around as a four or five starter in the majors, but fantasy-wise he’ll likely be a matchup-based streamer next season if he makes Baltimore’s rotation.

Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

28% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 10.2 IP, 5.06 ERA, 8.99 FIP, -2.2% K-BB%

09/19 vs. STL: 6 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K

Injuries have kept Keller off the mound for the majority of 2020, and prior to Saturday things hadn’t been to pretty for Keller when he did pitch. But the highly regarded young righty twirled a gem last week, firing six scoreless innings for one of the best starts of his career to this point. Unfortunately, the bullpen coughed up the lead for Keller and spoiled his chances for a win, but we can’t expect too many wins out of any Pirates pitcher given the current state of the team. What we should look for is strikeout ability, ratio help, and quality start opportunities, and with starts like this one Keller could be the answer in those categories.

One of the most prized pitching prospects in baseball, Keller has struggled to find his footing at the major league level. He took a pounding in 2019, going 1-5 and posting a horrific 7.13 ERA in 48 innings. But Keller sort of had a Corbin Burnes-esque season in 2019. The surface stats were terrible, but the skills looked solid. If you look past the ERA and win-loss record, Keller’s 3.19 FIP, 3.47 xFIP, and a 12.0 K/9, which are ace-like numbers. Ironically, the situation has been reversed for Keller this year. His 3.24 ERA is solid, but he has a 6.73 FIP and 6.27 xFIP. He’s only pitched 16.2 innings, and ERA estimators like FIP and xFIP can become skewed in such a small sample size, but it’s still an interesting turn of events for Keller. His 19.7% strikeout rate is uncharacteristically low, and he’s allowed four home runs in his first four starts.

Despite the ugly strikeout and home run numbers, Keller is still one of the most intriguing waiver wire arms out there for the final week. The uber prospect boasts a strong four-pitch arsenal, with a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. The fastball has only averaged 93.8 MPH overall this season, but over his last two appearances Keller has averaged 95 on the gun with it. He was at 95.5 MPH with his fastball last season, so it seems likely that Keller was just getting ramped up during his first two outings and should hover around 95 MPH with his fastball regularly. Of his secondary pitches, Keller’s slider has always been the gem of the bunch. Aside from his changeup, all of Keller’s pitches are considered above average, but his slider is on another level.

Keller’s slider generated an unreal 26.8% swinging strike rate last season, and while that has come down to just 13.5% this year, Keller still got five swinging strikes on 18 pitches in this start against the Cardinals. Batters have also failed to get a hit off of Keller’s slider in 2020, and have just a .072 xBA and .082 xSLG against his slider thus far. With above average velocity and spin, and the good results he’s gotten through his first two seasons, Keller’s slider has all the makings of an elite breaking ball, and should allow him to put up strong strikeout numbers at the major league level.

While Keller’s slider looks good, there should be concern about the viability of his fastball. It has a .205 BA against this season, but has been smoked by opposing batters for a 93.5 MPH average exit velocity, and has a .263 xBA and a troubling .609 xSLG. Keller’s heater was a major reason for his struggles last year, as batters hit .461 against the pitch along with a .719 SLG and .499 wOBA. Those numbers were perhaps the worst possible outcome for Keller, but a .205 BA and .441 SLG against his fastball this season seems near the best possible outcomes. Keller’s fastball has an above average spin rate, but the movement is unexceptional. Keller has above average velocity, but major league hitters can catch up to a 95 MPH heater, especially when it has poor movement. It would be nice to see Keller lean a little more heavily on his offspeed stuff instead of his fastball. It doesn’t have to be a radical shift, but if he threw his slider and curveball 5% of the time each and his fastball 10% less often it could serve him well.

Keller is a pitcher that has the tools to become a high-end starter, and he could put it all together next season. I liked him as a late round sleeper coming into this year, but a month-long stint on the IL never allowed us to see if that could come to fruition. I would go back to the well in next year’s drafts assuming Keller will be another late round flier or $1-$2 player in auctions. His final start this season comes Friday at Cleveland, and the Indians have just a .689 OPS, .139 ISO, and .305 wOBA against right-handed pitching this season. That’s a pretty juicy matchup, and Keller has the stuff to take advantage of a weak lineup. If you need an extra start, Keller is a solid option with an excellent matchup.

Verdict: A plus slider headlines a solid all-around repertoire for Keller, and he’ll finish the season against a weak Cleveland lineup, making him a good streaming option as a high risk, high reward pitcher. He’s also an interesting late round draft pick for next season, and someone I'll definitely look to scoop up in my leagues if the price is right.

Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks

57% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 22.1 IP, 8.46 ERA, 8.42 FIP, 6.8% K-BB%

09/20 @ HOU: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

A year ago it would be shocking to see Bumgarner featured in a column like this, but 2020 has been a rough one for ol’ Mason Saunders. Bumgarner has posted an eye-popping 7.36 ERA and 7.84 FIP this season, which are both more than twice as high as his career 3.21 ERA and 3.41 FIP. While no one expected Bumgarner to be this bad, the writing was on the wall coming into the season. Bumgarner really hasn’t been the same since his highly publicized dirt bike accident back in 2017. Sure, he managed a respectable 3.57 ERA between 2017-2019, but a 2% dip in strikeout rate and 4.26 xFIP over that time period are signs of a pitcher on the decline. Bumgarner really benefitted from pitching in AT&T/Oracle Park during that stretch as well, posting a 2.99 ERA in San Francisco, but a 4.61 ERA on the road. That’s why many were left scratching their heads when Bumgarner inked a five-year, $85 million dollar deal with Arizona this offseason. Was Arizona that desperate for veteran arms? Does their front office know about sabermetrics? Did Dave Stewart sneak in after hours to make one final blunder? Whatever happened, Bumgarner is a Diamondback now, but can he ever come close the pitcher he was at the height of his powers? And more importantly, does he have one more epic playoff performance in him, this time for fantasy managers?

Bumgarner’s repertoire hasn’t changed much even in the later years of his career. He still throws out the same four-pitch mix, relying heavily on his four-seam fastball, cutter, and curveball, with the occasional changeup. Bumgarner’s fastball velocity had been trending downwards coming into this season, but has taken a precipitous drop in 2020, as Bumgarner is averaging a mere 88.4 MPH on the gun this season. Below is a graph of his fastball velocity by year, just to allow you to visualize how stark the drop has been.

Even at his best he was never an overpowering pitcher in terms of velocity, with his best years being between 92-93 MPH, but he’s among the slowest in the league. The drop is so steep one has to wonder if something is wrong with him beyond age. He’s 31, which is old for baseball but not ancient. Plenty of pitchers can be effective at this stage in their career, especially pitchers with the raw talent that Bumgarner possesses. He does have almost 2000 MLB innings on his arm if you include the postseason, and such a heavy workload may have accelerated his decline.

It may seem overly simplistic to point to a lower fastball velocity as the reason for Bumgarner’s struggles, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Batters have pulverized Bumgarner’s fastball for a .309 BA and .618 SLG, and the expected stats are even worse, as Statcast projects a .329 xBA and .740 xSLG on MadBum’s four-seamer, and that’s not to mention the scorching 91.2 MPH average exit velocity against. That’s right, batters are sending it back about 3 MPH harder than Bumgarner is sending it in. I wish I could say the velocity was back up in this one, but it wasn’t even close. Bumgarner averaged 88.8 MPH with his fastball, which does tie a season high, but is still about 2-3 MPH below where he needs to be to find success.

What about the cutter? The famous MadBum cutter that has been the key to success for Madison Bumgarner throughout his career. Bumgarner has attempted to lean on his cutter more often this season, using it 36.2% of the time, his highest usage rate since 2013. Unfortunately, his cutter has suffered serious decline as well, as Bumgarner is throwing it just 83.4 MPH this season. That’s about 4 MPH less than last season, but it’s not just the velocity that’s troubling for Bumgarner. Below is a chart of average break on Bumgarner’s cutters by season.

So not only is it slow, it’s not moving much either, which makes it a cookie for major league hitters. Bumgarner’s cutter has been pounded for a .293 BA and .707 SLG this season as well, and it only generated three swinging strikes in this start.

Ultimately, we are a long way away from trusting Madison Bumgarner in fantasy again. If he can’t get his velocity back up we may never see a regularly effective Bumgarner again. He falls into a bucket of once great veterans who are now a shell of themselves, such as Jon Lester, Felix Hernandez, and Johnny Cueto. The only fantasy value I see in these types of players is in their name. More casual players who don’t spend a large chunk of their free time pouring over advanced statistics may recognize the name and the player becomes a trade asset, but I hesitate to draft or use them. His next matchup is solid, home against Colorado, a club with an 89 wRC+ against lefties and a 75 wRC+ away from Coors Field this season, but Bumgarner has shown little signs of life despite solid results Sunday. As far as next season, I’d have to see it before I trust him. He’ll probably be a cheap flier in drafts or auctions, but I’d rather roll that dice on a young up-and-comer like Mitch Keller instead of hoping Bumgarner regains his form. A rebound isn’t impossible for him, but there is nothing in the stuff or metrics that suggest one is imminent, which is why he has to do it on the diamond before we buy back in.

Verdict: It was nice to see at least one good start from Bumgarner this season, but we probably won't see another. Fastball and cutter velocity was still down in this one, and his nine swinging strikes on 80 pitches are fine, but a little underwhelming in today’s strikeout-heavy game. He can’t be trusted in his last start, even in deep leagues. 2021 will be critical for Bumgarner, because if he can’t regain his velocity, either by getting healthy, getting a normal spring training, or a mechanical change, this arm might be completely fried.

 

 



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Two-Start Pitchers and Category-Specific Hitters

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

As we enter the final week of the shortened regular season, big-league clubs are trying to punch their tickets into the playoffs, while fantasy managers aim to bring their squads over the finish line in first place. MLB teams in contention will ride hot bats and arms down the stretch run no matter what credentials they may have, while teams out of the race may look to give way to some players of the future.

Today we'll look at some two-start rookie pitchers who could help managers catch up in the strikeout column or lower some ratios with the finish line in sight. We'll also point out a few hitters who can help you out in a specific category of need down the final stretch run of the season. Good luck to everyone the rest of the way and congratulations in advance for those of you who are one your way to a championship title.

 

Two-Start Pitchers

Keegan Akin - SP, Baltimore Orioles

Fresh off a nine strikeout, five-inning scoreless performance versus the Braves last week, Keegan Akin is trending into a decent final week two-start streamer. Other than one disastrous outing versus the Yankees, the lefty hasn't allowed a run over his remaining three starts and has struck out 23 over 14 2/3 IP. With the struggling Red Sox and Blue Jays set to oppose Akin this week, the rookie is in a prime spot to finish the season on a high note.

Brady Singer - SP, Kansas City Royals

Although Brady Singer has struggled to find a groove for much of his time in the majors, he's looked like a seasoned veteran over his previous two starts. Combining for 14 IP, the club's top pitching prospect has surrendered just three hits and three walks in this span while striking out 16 with zero runs allowed. He'll square off against a couple of beatable lineups in the Cardinals and Tigers this week, making him a player who can undoubtedly help seal your numbers in the pitching categories down the final stretch.

Tarik Skubal - SP, Detroit Tigers

Tarik Skubal has had an up-and-down debut season for the Tigers, so he's on the riskier end of the two-start rookies this week. He did have an excellent showing in his most recent outing versus the Royals (6 IP, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K), but he has also failed to make it through three innings in half of his starts this year. Skubal is a bit of a desperation dice roll for his matchups against the Twins and Royals this week, but managers chasing first place may have to take the gamble.

Category-Specific Hitters

Ke'Bryan Hayes - 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Since the Pirates recalled Ke'Bryan Hayes at the beginning of the month, the 23-year-old has provided sturdy fantasy numbers despite being a part of an underwhelming lineup. He's slashed .323/.391/.597 through 18 games while providing some appealing counting stats with three homers, 11 runs, and eight RBI. With a recent promotion from the third spot to the two-hole in the Bucs batting order, Hayes can help boost your RBI and batting average categories with a full slate of games this week.

Bobby Dalbec - 1B, 3B, Boston Red Sox

Managers looking to add a few more dingers to their yearly total should look no further than Red Sox prospect Bobby Dalbec. The right-handed slugger has belted seven bombs in 17 games so far in his major-league career, including a stretch where he hit a homer in five-straight contests earlier this month. Strikeouts are an issue for Dalbec (47.8% K%), but if you can afford the batting average risk, he's worth taking a shot on for the final week.

Leody Taveras - OF, Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers have leaned on their third-ranked prospect Leody Taveras as their everyday leadoff hitter over the final month, and yet he's still available in 98% of leagues. The switch-hitter hasn't hit all that well (.214 BA), but he has made an impact with six thefts and 16 runs since he can thankfully take a walk (11.7% BB%). Coming off a 32-steal campaign in 2019, Taveras seems like a good of choice as any to log a couple more before his season finishes.



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Late-Season Arms and Bats

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

With just under two weeks remaining in the season, big-league clubs are trying to punch their tickets into the playoffs, while fantasy managers aim to bring their squads over the finish line in first place. MLB teams in contention will ride hot bats and arms down the stretch run no matter what credentials they may have, while teams out of the race may look to give way to some players of the future. If you own a rookie already in the bigs, it's important to know where they stand in the lineup with the end of the season in sight.

Today we'll point out some hot hitters and pitchers who will continue to impact their real-life clubs and their fantasy owners down the regular season's stretch run. 2020 is providing us with a plethora of rookie call-ups, but it's essential to filter through which ones can help win us the fantasy gold.

 

Hot Prospect Arms

Deivi Garcia - SP, New York Yankees

The injury-ravaged Yankees have leaned on their top-three prospect Deivi Garcia over the past two weeks, and he's lived up to expectations. Over three starts, the right-hander has compiled an excellent 18/2 K/BB with a 3.06 ERA and 0.91 WHIP and has now notched his first win in his most recent outing versus the Jays. At 5'9", Garcia doesn't have the intimidation factor on the mound, but he gets his outs effectively with a knee-buckling curve that makes his low-90s four-seamer look much faster. It appears the Yanks are going to keep the Dominican in the rotation for the remainder of the year, and with their offense coming back to life, he can undoubtedly rack up a few more wins before the season ends.

Ian Anderson - SP, Atlanta Braves

Ian Anderson has filled the shoes of the several Braves starters who've hit the shelf this season, helping keep the club in first place in the division. With a perfect 3-0 record through four starts, Anderson has allowed just four earned runs in 22 innings (1.64 ERA) while striking out 27 in his debut season. The bad is that we have seen him struggle at times with command in the bigs with 10 walks to date after having a history of getting a bit wild in the minors. However, Anderson will miss bats and that ability has brought him to where he is now as the team's top pitching prospect. He's still available in 35% of Yahoo leagues, but if you've already rostered Anderson, continue to ride his strikeout arm.

Dane Dunning - SP, Chicago White Sox

The White Sox may have found another promising young arm with Dane Dunning flashing signs of excellence through his first four career starts. He's most recently thrown six shutout frames against the Pirates and is sitting at a 2.70 ERA and 1.00 WHIP through 20 IP while holding a 21/7 K/BB. Dunning finds his success by mixing it up with a five-pitch arsenal that has generated above-average numbers in whiff rate (34.9%) and ground-ball rate (52.8%). The right-hander has historically kept opposing batters in the ballpark throughout his minor league tenure (0.61 HR/9), and with only one long ball allowed so far in the majors, Dunning can continue to find success with the Pale Hose.

 

Hot Prospect Bats

Ryan Mountcastle - 1B, SS, OF, - Baltimore Orioles

The bat of Ryan Mountcastle has helped keep the Orange Birds in contention for a playoff spot this season since his call up in late-August. The 23-year-old is hitting .396 with five homers, nine runs, and 17 RBI over his last 15 games while batting in the meat and potatoes of the lineup. Mountcastle has impressed the most in his plate discipline by holding a respectable 19.2 K% and 10.3% BB%, numbers that have slightly bettered his minor league rates. It remains to be seen if he can keep up these stellar figures over a larger sample, but with consistent results lately, Mountcastle doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Joey Bart - C, San Francisco Giants

Joey Bart struggled a bit out of the gate for the Giants when he was called up on August 20, but the backstop has started to find his swing of late. The team's top prospect is 12-for-36 (.333) over his last 11 contests with eight runs and four RBI, although he is still searching for his first big fly in the majors. Bart is spanking the ball to a 47.5% Hard Hit% and a 32.5% line drive rate, but once he inevitably elevates the ball more than his current 10.0% fly-ball rate, some homers will come. The 23-year-old is still experiencing some growing pains with a 34.7% K%, but his bat is still playable in two-catcher formats at a minimum.

Nick Madrigal - 2B, Chicago White Sox

Nick Madrigal has lived up to his hype as a hitter, but we're still waiting for him to show off his speed. After stealing 35 bags in 120 games in 2019, Madrigal has just one theft in 17 games with the White Sox this season despite getting on base at an outstanding .375 clip. The speedster is at a .355 BA for the year with five runs and eight RBI, but his numbers would be much more appealing with a few more steals on his resume. Perhaps he's protecting his injured shoulder, but managers looking for a batting average helper and potential base stealer should look at adding Madrigal for the stretch run.



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2020 Fantasy Baseball Advice 2020 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers Editor Note Featured Baseball MLB Analysis RotoBaller - All Fantasy Sports Articles

Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 8

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

The lefties were on display this week, as we saw two strong outings from AL southpaws Jordan Montgomery and Justus Sheffield. And of course we're going to break down the most surprising start of the season to this point, Alec Mills's no-hitter over Milwaukee on Sunday.

Roster percentage is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 09/14/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

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Jordan Montgomery, New York Yankees

16% Owned

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 28.1 IP, 5.72 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 13.4% K-BB%

09/12 vs. BAL: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K

Montgomery was something of a popular sleeper candidate coming into the season, as the 27-year-old was set to pitch his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery back in 2018. Montgomery was effective for the Yankees in 2017, putting up a 3.88 ERA and 14.3% K-BB% in 29 starts before succumbing to injury.  Domingo German’s suspension solidified Montgomery’s role in the rotation, and the stars were aligned for another successful season in the Bronx. Things didn’t work out that way for Montgomery, who got pounded to the tune of a 5.72 ERA and 1.6 HR/9 through his first seven starts. However, Montgomery welcomed the struggling O’s in to town, and sliced up Baltimore’s lineup for a career-best nine strikeouts. With a powerful (on paper, at least) New York offense to support him, Montgomery may be the answer for those trying to eek out a few extra wins and strikeouts down the stretch, but just how useful can the big lefty be?

Montgomery has a deep five-pitch repertoire consisting of a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, changeup, and the occasional cutter. Montgomery’s 92.7 MPH fastball is a career-best, but still puts him around the league average. Even though Montgomery is throwing his fastball harder, opposing hitters don’t seem to mind, as batters are crushing his four-seamer for a .346 AVG and .538 SLG. The two-seamer hasn’t been much better, with opponents hitting .324 with a .486 SLG off the pitch thus far. This isn’t a new development for Montgomery, as both of his fastballs have always been clobbered, but it is cause for concern and caps his upside. Plenty of pitchers can get by with weak fastballs, but it makes them risky on a start-by-start basis. Montgomery’s own teammate Masahiro Tanaka is a perfect example of this. Tanaka’s fastball gets clobbered, but his command and secondary pitches are good enough for Tanaka to survive and thrive at times, but make him tough to trust. Montgomery must show he has capable enough secondary pitches if he wants to stick around with such a bad fastball.

Fortunately for Montgomery, he’s got two solid secondary pitches in his changeup and curveball. Both pitches have been effective in generating whiffs and soft contact. Batters are hitting .238 off Montgomery’s changeup and .161 off his curveball, and have an average exit velocity under 80 MPH on both pitches. These two pitches have allowed Montgomery to have overall 83.8 MPH average exit velocity against, the third best mark in the league (min. 100 batted ball events). Montgomery had a decent 87 MPH average exit velocity during his full season in 2017, but his current rate puts him in elite territory. Montgomery has been racking up the whiffs with both secondary pitches, with eight swinging strikes between the pair on Saturday. Montgomery’s curveball did the heavy-lifting for him against Baltimore, with Montgomery throwing it 31% of the time and getting six whiffs. Here’s an example from this start.

His curveball is not traditional, and is really more of a slurve than a true curveball. It’s always gotten better than average whiffs for Montgomery and he should be able to use this pitch to get decent strikeout numbers. Based on his track record, we shouldn’t expect Montgomery to maintain a strikeout rate above 9.0 K/9 and it’s unlikely that Montgomery will match or top the nine strikeout mark again this year. Over a four-game series with the Yankees, Baltimore scored three runs total and struck out 38 times, so Montgomery may have taken advantage of a weak lineup that had been overperfoming their true skill levels earlier in the year.

Verdict: Montgomery has all the tools of a four starter in the majors with a ceiling as a three, which makes him a streamable option in the right matchup. His next outing is against Boston, and while the Red Sox have a bad record, they do have with a .796 OPS and 111 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this season. That’s not a great spot for a bad fastball pitcher like Montgomery. Sure, he had a good start this time, but it was just two starts earlier that Montgomery failed to make it out of the first inning against Tampa Bay.

&nsbp;

Justus Sheffield, Seattle Mariners

28% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 37.1 IP, 4.34 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 13.8% K-BB%

09/12 @ ARI: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K

Once considered among the top left-handed pitching prospects in baseball, Sheffield’s star has faded since coming to Seattle as the centerpiece of the package that brought James Paxton to New York. Sheffield took his lumps in 2019, posting a 5.50 ERA and 4.71 FIP in 36 MLB innings. As if that wasn't bad enough, in 55 innings at Triple-A Sheffield was pounded for a 6.87 ERA, 7.18 FIP, 1.96 HR/9, and 1.17 K:BB ratio. Yeah, there were some crazy offensive numbers in the PCL last year, but these numbers are hideous any way you spin it. Two years ago a strong start from Sheffield would have ignited a massive hype train, but now it barely registers among fantasy baseball managers. Sheffield is still just 24 and has fewer than 100 MLB innings under his belt, so he has plenty of room to grow as a pitcher.

Sheffield uses a three pitch mix, relying on a fastball, slider, and changeup. The slider was his most touted pitch as a prospect, but scouts also raved about his sinking fastball, projecting that Sheffield could use it to regularly induce groundballs. His changeup is the weakest of the three pitches, and Sheffield uses it almost exclusively against right-handed batters when the slider would be less effective. Sheffield did make a change with his heater this season, ditching the four-seamer for a true two-seamer. That change hasn’t been revolutionary to Sheffield’s game from a results perspective, but it has helped him limit power. Batters had a .507 SLG against Sheffield’s fastball last season, but have a .378 SLG against his sinker this year. It’s worth noting that the xSLG (.460 in 2019, .451 in 2020) are nearly identical, so it remains to be seen if this improvement will stick. He’s been rather fortunate with just a 5.3% HR/FB ratio, but Sheffield also excelled at limiting longballs as a minor leaguer prior to 2019, so it’s certainly possible that he can maintain a solid home run rate in the majors, especially pitching half his games in the friendly confines of T-Mobile Park.

The most impressive piece to Sheffield’s arsenal is his slider, which batters have flailed at for a .180 AVG and .197 SLG this season, along with a 14.2% SwStr rate, by far his best on his three primary pitches. A 14.2% SwStr rate falls short of elite territory for a  slider, but with sharp, sweeping break and an above average spin rate this pitch can make any left-handed batter look foolish. Here’s one of his best from this start.

You might look at that pitch and wonder how Sheffield only has a 22.2% strikeout rate on the year. Well, remember how I said Sheffield’s slider can make any left-handed batter look foolish? Unfortunately for Sheffield, sometimes major league teams use right-handed batters too. With Sheffield relying so much on his slider to get whiffs, he has suffered from quite large platoon splits. As a big leaguer Sheffield has held righties to a .173 AVG and .270 wOBA, but righties have crushed him for a .303 AVG and .348 wOBA. It’s a relatively small sample size as Sheffield has just 82 career innings in the majors, but with his pitching style it’s easy to predict wide platoon splits.

Sheffield can fix his platoon splits one of three ways: Better fastball command, better slider command, or developing the changeup into a true strong third pitch instead of a weak alternative for his slider. Ideally, he’d do all three, but that’s a tall order even over an entire offseason. If he could do one and cut back on the walks it would work wonders for his consistency and long-term viability as a starter. It was just two years ago where Sheffield was among the most prized pitching prospects in baseball, and he makes for a sneaky post-hype sleeper heading into 2021. For this year, Sheffield should be viewed similarly to Jordan Montgomery. The two have different pitching styles, but your willingness to use them depends on matchup and personal situation, because both are far from must-start right now.

Verdict: For the first time in his big league career, Sheffield is showing some promise that he can live up to the immense hype he had as a prospect. Still, he’s tough to trust in playoff time, and only usable against weak opponents. As it would line up now Sheffield’s next start comes home against San Diego, a team with a 109 wRC+ and .777 OPS against lefties this season. I’d avoid that one, but his final start against Oakland is intriguing. The A’s are playoff-bound, but only have a .714 OPS against left-handed pitchers, along with a 26.8% K rate versus southpaws, second-highest in the league. Oakland will also be without Matt Chapman and possibly without lefty-masher Chad Pinder, making that start even more enticing. He’s a sneaky championship streamer in that one.

&nsbp;

Alec Mills, Chicago Cubs

28% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior tot this start): 43.2 IP, 4.74 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 9.9% K-BB%

09/13/20 @ MIL: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K

Sure, Alex Mills threw a no-hitter, but did you know he has a .000 BABIP over his last nine innings? Yeesh, talk about good luck. In all seriousness, Mills etched his name into the record book on Sunday tossing the 16th no-hitter in Chicago Cubs history and becoming Chicago’s second favorite Sunday arm behind comeback artist Mitch Trubisky. Mills has sort-of filled the Mike Montgomery role for Chicago over the past few years, bouncing between long relief and the rotation as needed, but with a no-no to his name and a 3.85 ERA over his MLB career, the Cubs may have stumbled onto something special with the unheralded righty.

As a 22nd round pick by Kansas City in 2012, it’s safe to say that Mills had little prospect pedigree. He did make it on to some Chicago Cubs prospect lists a few years ago after coming over from KC, but Chicago’s farm system had been severely depleted by win-now trades at that point and says more about the Cubs’ prospects at the time than Mills. In short, Mills had no where near the hype of a Justus Sheffield or Jordan Montgomery, and many scouts thought he’d be lucky to hang around in a big league bullpen for a few years.

Mills works with a five-pitch repertoire with a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, curveball, and slider. He fires in his fastball at a modest 90 MPH, and opposing hitters have sent it back even harder, as Mills’s four-seamer has a 90.6 MPH average exit velocity against this season. His four-seamer may have a .250 AVG and .450 SLG against, but a .313 xBA and .621 xSLG foretell heartache in his future with this heater. His best pitch has been the changeup, which has held batters to a .147 AVG and .324 SLG this season, along with an 18.6% SwStr rate. An argument could be made for his slider being his best pitch, as batters have mustered just a .111 AVG, .111 SLG and have a 13.2% SwStr rate against the pitch this year, but Mills has only used it 9.4% of the time this season and only 5% of the time in his no-hitter, so Mills clearly views the pitch as a tertiary option. It’s the changeup that appears to be the key to Mills’s success.

What makes Mills’s changeup so special? Well, there are two things. First,  Mills has had about nine MPH of velocity separation between his fastball and changeup this season. Among the 260 pitchers who have thrown at least 250 total pitches and thrown both a fastball and changeup, the average velocity separation between fastball and changeup this year is 7.67. Some of the largest positive outliers are pitchers like Dylan Cease and Devin Williams, who average better than 97 and 96 MPH on their fastballs respectively. Mills simply can’t compete with that, but settles into a positive zone with guys like Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Keuchel, and Zach Davies. Those are Mills’s people, the guys he should one day hope to become. They all average around nine MPH of separation between their fastball and changeup despite poor fastball velocity. Like any metric, velocity separation isn’t an absolute indicator of success, but it helps with deception, which is Mills’s only hope of generating whiffs.

The second thing that makes Mills’s changeup special is above average movement, both horizontal and vertical. Here’s an early example from this start.

It doesn’t take much to get Keston Hiura to whiff, but Mills embarrasses the young second baseman with a changeup at his shins. This movement allows Mills to use the pitch as his primary offspeed offering against both lefties and righties. Mills has obviously been better against right-handed batters with a .159 AVG and .238 wOBA for his career, but he’s held his own against lefties with a .259 AVG and .344 wOBA all time. Those aren’t great numbers, but he can survive with those platoon splits.

What makes me hesitant about Mills isn’t just the poor fastball velocity, but it’s that his changeup isn’t good enough to overcome that fastball. Plenty of pitchers, such as Masahiro Tanaka and Dylan Bundy, have gotten by with a bad fastball, but those pitchers have an elite breaking ball. Kyle Hendricks has been the wizard of weak contact, while Dallas Keuchel the king of grounders. All of those pitchers do one thing exceptionally well to overcome their fastball. Mills doesn’t have that. He has a good changeup, a decent groundball rate, and limits hard contact pretty well, but all of those skills are far from elite. It would be interesting to see Mills use his slider more often, as it’s performed well and has above average break, but he only throws it about 10% of the time. Batters have a .061 AVG and a 14.8% SwStr rate against his slider all time, but it’s his least thrown pitch. A left-handed batter has never gotten a hit off his slider in the major leagues. Seriously, not once. 50 pitches thrown, zero base hits. Surely the Cubs’ coaching staff and analytics team knows about these statistics, so there must be a good reason why he’s not throwing much, but from where I’m sitting I can’t figure it out.

Going into this breakdown I was ready to dismiss Mills as lucky, and in many ways he was extremely lucky in this start. The Brewers put ten balls in play with an xBA of .300 or higher, the highest being a lineout by Jedd Gyorko in the second that screamed off his bat at 102.1 MPH and travelled 388 feet, good for an .810 xBA, but landed safely in the glove of Ian Happ standing on the centerfield warning track. But hey, if no one got lucky then we’d never have no hitters. Mills has been pretty lucky this season quite frankly, with a .211 BABIP helping him to a 3.93 ERA, but his 5.00 SIERA and 2.18 K/BB ratio are concerning. It’s almost silly to say I want to see more a pitcher throws a no hitter, but I do want to see more from Mills. I want to see him increase his slider and changeup usage so he’s less reliant on his fastball. That probably won’t happen this season, which make him another situational streamer. I wouldn’t be too keen on starting him after a 114-pitch outing either, especially against his next opponent, the powerful Minnesota Twins. After that one he’s lined up to face the Pirates in Pittsburgh, a matchup I’d consider.

Verdict: While the unheralded ex-swingman may not look like much on the radar gun, he’s got a pair of strong secondary pitches in his changeup and slider. It would be nice to see him use the changeup and slider more often, but we’ll likely have to wait until 2021 to see a change like that. For now, he’s a matchup dependent streamer. The no-hitter may have other owners overrating him, so don’t forget he had a 4.74 ERA prior to this start, and has allowed four or more runs in four of nine starts this season. He also has a pitiful 17.5% strikeout rate on the season, which makes the ceiling pretty low on days where he allows hits.



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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 7

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

It was another exciting week of surprising starts, and with playoff time already upon us now is when September heroes emerge and become legends, at least in the storied history of our personal fantasy leagues. This week we're looking at three guys who could become that fantasy legend in the truncated 2020 season. Seth Lugo has continued to thrive after an unexpected move to the rotation with his best outing yet, Tony Gonsolin celebrated the Ross Stripling trade with another dominant performance, and Tarik Skubal notched his first career career quality start.

Roster percentage is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 09/07/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

 

Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers

11% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 9.1 IP, 6.75 ERA, 6.58 FIP, 14.3% K-BB%

09/05 @ MIN: 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K

Skubal has been one of many top pitching prospects to make his debut in 2020, but unlike many other hyped names, Skubal had struggled to make an impact prior to this start. Detroit gave him an incredibly short leash to begin with, as Skubal pitched four total innings over his first two starts. He made it a little deeper the third time out, going five innings against the Twins, but the young lefty finally went deep enough to earn his first career quality start against those same Twins on Saturday. With the hype having died down on Skubal he is available in over 80% of leagues, and the big name probably has fantasy managers wondering if Skubal is poised to be the next rookie pitcher to put up big numbers.

Skubal is perhaps best known for the monster strikeout rates he put up in the minors. Skubal always maintained a strikeout rate of 30% or better as a minor leaguer, but posted an absurd 48.2% strikeout rate in 42.1 IP at Double-A last year. That was good for a 17.43 K/9, which is a number you only expect to see from an elite reliever. Skubal was able to rack up those strikeouts with a four-pitch arsenal consisting of a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. It’s a rather complete repertoire for a young pitcher, and if he’s able to command all four pitches effectively Skubal should find success at the big league level.

The fastball and slider were Skubal’s most highly regarded pitches as a prospect, and it’s easy to see why after this start. He averaged 94.6 MPH with the heater in this start, and generated eight of his 14 swinging strikes with his fastball. Skubal throws hard for a lefty, and his 95 MPH average fastball velocity is the fourth highest among southpaw starters this season, behind just Jesus Luzardo, Blake Snell, and Yusei Kikuchi (min. 10 IP). His 2441 RPM on the fastball also puts him in the 86th percentile of fastball spin rate, and with 4.2 inches of break Skubal’s fastball is able to play above its velocity, and it’s a big reason why he’s had a 10.9% SwStr rate on his fastball this year. Here's one of his better four-seamers from this outing.

 

It's very tough for hitters to catch up to a 95 MPH fastball like that high in the zone. A good fastball can take a pitcher a long way, but he needs at least one worthwhile secondary pitch to sustain success in the bigs. Luckily for Skubal, he has more than one.

The slider has long been the standout among Skubal’s secondary offerings, and that hasn’t change through his first four starts. Opponents are hitting just .214 with a .286 SLG and .273 wOBA against the pitch thus far, and have a 15.7% SwStr rate on Skubal’s slider. His slider doesn’t blow hitters away like some of the game’s best, but it’s an above average offering that coupled with his fastball should allow Skubal to generate strikeouts, although it’s unlikely he’d do so at a 30% or better clip like he did in the minors.

Skubal’s other two pitches, the curveball and changeup, are clearly a notch or two below his fastball and slider. Skubal has only thrown 22 curveballs this season, and batters are 1-for-1 with a single against the pitch. Poor command has been a knock on Skubal all throughout his minor league career, and with just a 13.6% zone rate on his curve it’s clear that he doesn’t have much command with this one yet. A pitcher doesn’t necessarily want to pound the zone with his curveball, but 13.6% is absurdly low. The curveball is not a pitch we should expect much from for Skubal at this point.

His changeup is a bit more critical to his success, as Skubal uses his changeup exclusively against right-handed batters. Righties have eaten him alive this season for a .302 BA, .379 wOBA, and all three of his home runs. They have only hit .250 on his changeup, but the pitch has a .479 xBA and 1.113 xSLG. Yes, Statcast projects batters to slug over 1.000 off Skubal’s changeup. Obviously, this is a small sample size as Skubal has only thrown 40 changeups all year, but these ugly numbers reveal what could be a larger problem for Skubal, which is an inability to put away opposite handed batters.

Skubal hasn’t been afraid to use his slider against righties when ahead in the count, going to it 26% of the time when ahead and 29% of the time with two strikes, but Skubal is in big trouble if he falls behind against righties. His fastball is a plus offering, but right-handed major league hitters can still feast on fastballs from a lefty. Righties have crushed Skubal’s fastball for a .333 AVG and .593 SLG thus far, and as mentioned above results against the changeup haven’t been much better. Until he better develops his changeup, improves his command, and/or gains more confidence in his slider against righties, Skubal will continue to struggle against opposite handed hitters. It’s doubtful that he’ll be able to fix all that over the last three weeks of the season, os beware of Skubal against a team with a penchant for mashing lefties.

Skubal has plenty of upside and has shown several positives traits during his short time in the majors this season, but there’s enough here to scare me away in tough matchups. In a longer season it would be interesting to watch whether Skubal could make the necessary adjustments midseason, but with just three weeks remaining and championship glory on the line it’s hard to trust such a raw arm. On the plus side, the downside could be mitigated by Skubal’s short leash. Detroit has been so cautious with their prized prospect they would likely yank him before he completely destroys your ratios. Especially since Detroit is a surprise wild card contender and can’t afford to let Skubal ride out rough patches while they jockey for playoff positioning. In soft matchups Skubal isn’t the worst streaming option, but he’s hard to trust in tough matchups or in critical fantasy weeks.

Verdict: A plus fastball-slider combo should give Skubal good strikeout upside, but command issues, a quick hook, and struggles against righties limit Skubal’s overall ceiling. It wouldn’t surprise me if Skubal’s last start was his only quality start all year. His next start is at St. Louis against a Cardinals lineup that had a 109 wRC+ against lefties this season, along with the second-lowest strikeout rate against southpaws at 18.7%. The risk does not outweigh the reward in that matchup.

 

Seth Lugo, New York Mets

76% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start, SP/RP): 17 IP, 2.12 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 29.2% K-BB%

09/05 vs. PHI: 5 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 8 K

Seth Lugo’s 2020 numbers and high roster percentage make him seem like an unlikely candidate for a column like this, but the reason he’s on so many teams and has outstanding stats is because of his work as a reliever. Lugo’s 2.61 ERA and 5.5 K/BB ratio out of the pen earned him the closer role for the Mets, but his tenure as closer was short-lived, as the starter-desperate Mets threw Lugo in the rotation, looking for some semblance of stability behind Jacob deGrom. Lugo had been great in his first two starts this year, allowing one earned run total, but never made it through four innings. Lugo finally completed five innings on Saturday, and was absolutely brilliant in the process, striking out eight Phillies while allowing just one run. The Mets say Lugo is ready to go even deeper, and if that’s true he could be an excellent contributor down the stretch. Those who added Lugo were expecting to get a dominant reliever, but could they have lucked into a dominant starter instead?

For an ex-reliever Lugo has a pretty deep arsenal, using a four-seam fastball, sinker, curveeball, slider, and changeup. He also mixes things up well, using everything but the changeup at least 18% of the time. Lugo may be best known for his curveball, which averages 3203 RPM, giving him the third-best curveball spin rate in the majors (min. 250 pitches). This spinning hook has frustrated opposing hitters this season for a .118 AVG and .294 SLG, along with a 15.3% SwStr rate. Even when batters make contact they can’t do much with the pitch, as it has an 86.1 MPH average exit velocity and a 57.1% groundball rate this year. The pitch also gorgeous to watch, so here are a few examples from this start.

That pitch is so dirty I need to take a shower after watching it. And while Lugo’s physics-defying bender is the gem of his arsenal and should continue to make hitters look foolish, this Metropolitan has more to offer than his curve.

From a results perspective, Seth Lugo’s slider has been horrible this season. Batters are hitting .462 with a .238 wOBA against the pitch, but the underlying numbers tell a more favorable story. Lugo has a 22.2% SwStr rate with his slider, and batters have a .583 BABIP despite just an 83.6 MPH average exit velocity and a 58.3% groundball rate against. The .294 xBA and .294 xwOBA suggest better days ahead for Lugo’s slider. The pitch doesn’t light up a Statcast chart quite like the curveball does, but it should serve as an effective third pitch to complement the curveball and fastballs.

Speaking of Lugo’s fastballs, they have both been pretty good offerings in their own right this season. He uses both a four-seamer about equally, and batters have not been able to muster much against either offering, as opponents are hitting under .180 against both pitches. Lugo’s four-seamer has always given hitters fits, as they are hitting .177 with a 10.9% SwStr rate against the pitch all time, and it has been effective both as a starter and reliever. The sinker is a different story, as the pitch got creamed during Lugo’s 2017 campaign as a starter for a .311 average and .387 wOBA. The important thing to watch here is Lugo’s velocity, as he averaged just 91 MPH with his sinker in 2017, a career low during the only year where Lugo worked primarily as a starter. If Lugo’s velocity dips as he stretches out to go deeper and deeper into games, his fastball could become very hittable. Below average velocity was one of the main reasons Lugo couldn't hack it as a starter the first time around, and if he can’t keep it around 93-94 he could struggle again.

Even though Lugo was viewed as a failed starter prior to this year, his 2017 campaign really wasn’t that bad. Sure, he had a 4.71 ERA, but a 3.95 FIP, 4.18 xFIP, and 3.4 K/BB ratio are solid numbers in today’s game. With how poorly some of the Mets’ starters have been this year, they would gladly take that performance as a worst-case scenario. And his stint as a reliever has allowed Lugo’s dazzling curveball to flourish, giving him a hammer strikeout pitch in a repertoire of solid stuff. Chances are Lugo isn’t available in most leagues, but if you added him in hopes of getting a closer, you may have wound up with a high-upside starter instead. Lugo is worth adding in 12-team mixed leagues or deeper.

Verdict: Lugo’s curveball is as pretty as ever, and his well-rounded pitch arsenal should allow him to routinely pitch five innings or deeper now that Lugo is stretched out. His next start against the Blue Jays in Buffalo is a little scary, but he’s been good enough to earn our trust for that one.

 

Tony Gonsolin, Los Angeles Dodgers

56% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 17.2 IP, 0.51 ERA, 2.24 FIP, 18.5% K-BB%

09/05 vs. COL: 6 IP, 3 H, 2 R (1 ER), 0 BB, 8 K

Every year the Dodgers seem to have at least one exciting emergent arm that looks ready dominate every fifth turn, only to be jerked around between the rotation, bullpen, injured list and minor leagues. Whether it be Ross Stripling, Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, or countless other names, every fantasy player has been frustrated by the Dodgers pitching management at some point in the past. It’s as if they only care about winning big league games, and not the thousands of fantasy managers that rely on these pitchers. Well, this year that man in Tony Gonsolin, a consensus top-10 Dodgers’ prospect in a loaded farm system. The Dodgers did us a favor at the trade deadline, dealing Ross Stripling to the Blue Jays and solidifying Gonsolin’s role as a starter. It was an easy move for them, as the young righty has been spectacular in five starts, sporting an immaculate 0.76 ERA and 0.72 WHIP. Obviously, Gonsolin can’t keep those numbers up over an extended period, but just how good can he be?

Scouts raved over Gonsolin’s raw stuff, highlighted by a filthy split-change that helped him maintain at least a 26.2% strikeout rate at every level of the minors in his last three seasons. Gonsolin has some cheese to go along with that splitter as well, as he’s averaged 95.2 MPH with his fastball this season, and has a max velocity of 97.9 MPH. This combination alone can be devastating, but unlike many young pitchers Gonsolin has two complementary pitches in his slider and curveball to round out his arsenal.

Gonsolin’s splitter is what catapulted his stock as a prospect, and the pitch has been as advertised thus far. Batters are hitting just .208 with a .275 wOBA against the pitch, and with a -3-degree average launch angle and 81 MPH average exit velocity, batters haven’t been able to make solid contact on Gonsolin’s splitter. With 3.1 inches of break, Gonsolin’s splitter has the highest horizontal movement in the majors (min. 100 pitches). Take a look at this beauty from his most recent start.

It’s easy to see why Gonsolin was so hyped with this weapon at his disposal. Looking at his splitter I can’t help but draw comparisons to Kevin Gausman. Many may cringe at that comp, but Gausman was once a top prospect known for his above average velocity and filthy split-change. Gonsolin possesses those same attributes, but unlike Gausman, Gonsolin appears to have an effective third pitch.

No one can touch Gonsolin’s slider, at least not so far, as Gonsolin has not surrendered a hit with his slider this season. He has been a little lucky, but even if he regresses to his .088 xBA he’ll probably be okay. His slider has a monster 32.6% swinging strike rate as well, and he generated eight whiffs on 14 pitches with the slider in this start against Colorado. Gonsolin’s slider was always an afterthought, living in the shadow of his splitter and fastball, but it’s been a quality offering for him thus far, and has above average break for a slider. Here was a pretty good one from this start.

If that’s considered your third best pitch, you are in pretty good shape on a big league mound. It’s been a small sample size, but there’s a lot to like about what Gonsolin has done thus far. He won’t sustain a 0.76 ERA all year, but he should be able to deliver solid production as a waiver wire add. The biggest concern with him is control, as Gonsolin had an 11% walk rate at Triple-A last season. He has a 53.3% zone rate this season, so it would be difficult to have a double digit walk rate with how much Gonsolin has pounded the zone, but command and control have always been the knock on Gonsolin as a prospect. It would be hard to imagine him maintaining his current 5.8% walk rate based on his history, but unless the walks really start to pile up he should still be effective.

Verdict: Three above average pitches have allowed Gonsolin to dominate at the major league level, and while no one should expect him to maintain a 0.76 ERA, Gonsolin should be owned in all leagues and started in most matchups. My biggest concern is a short leash, as he hasn't thrown more than 84 pitches in an outing this year. He’ll be a popular 2021 breakout candidate if he finishes strong, and if not I’ll gladly scoop him up at a discount in drafts next year.

 



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Stretch-Run Rookies

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

With just under three weeks remaining in the season, big-league clubs are trying to punch their tickets into the playoffs, while fantasy managers aim to bring their squads over the finish line in first place. MLB teams in contention will ride hot bats and arms down the stretch run no matter what credentials they may have, while teams out of the race may look to give way to some players of the future. If you own a rookie already in the bigs, it's important to know where they stand in the lineup with the end of the season in sight.

Today we'll point out some hot hitters and pitchers who will continue to impact their real-life clubs and their fantasy owners down the regular season's stretch run. 2020 is providing us with a plethora of rookie call-ups, but it's essential to filter through which ones can help win us the fantasy gold.
 

Tarik Skubal - SP, Detroit Tigers

Tarik Skubal was on a short leash over his first two big-league starts, throwing a combined 4 1/3 innings while allowing five runs. Since then, he's taken on a formidable Twins lineup in back-to-back starts, and he's shut the door on their offense allowing just three runs over 11 IP combined. The lefty still hasn't surpassed 78 pitches in an outing, but his efficiency of surrendering just five hits and two walks in these starts has allowed him to go deeper into games. It appears Skubal is starting to find his groove in the majors and could provide managers with some decent starts down the stretch run.

Sixto Sanchez - SP, Miami Marlins

With every start Sixto Sanchez makes, it's looking more and more likely that the Marlins have found their ace of the future. The team's top prospect has dazzled over three starts and 19 innings so far, holding an incredible 19/1 K/BB with a 2.37 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Although his four-seamer can hit triple-digits, Sanchez's changeup is his most frequently used pitch, and for good reason since opponents are 3-for-29 against it with no extra-base hits. With the Marlins surprisingly in contention for a playoff spot, Sanchez will be an essential cog for his club to reach October and for managers looking to win a fantasy championship.

Tony Gonsolin - SP, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers

With the departure of Ross Stripling, Tony Gonsolin now has a full-time spot in the team's starting rotation after making some spot starts earlier this year. In his most recent outing versus the Rockies, the right-hander struck out eight over six frames while allowing just three hits and one run with no free passes issued. He's down to an outstanding 0.76 ERA and 0.72 WHIP with a 25/5 K/BB over 23 2/3 IP for baseball's most winningest team this season. Gonsolin is still searching four that elusive first win of the season, but with his dominance so far, it's only a matter of time before he officially earns the credit.

Willi Castro - 3B, SS, Detroit Tigers

With more attention drawn on Detroit's higher-end prospects this season, Willi Castro has snuck under the radar despite his excellent play. He's hitting .400 over his last 12 games and is slashing .349/.364/.556 with three homers, 10 runs, and 12 RBI on the season. Castro has hit well on both sides of the plate as a rookie with a .308 BA versus southpaws and a .362 BA against righties, numbers that have helped propel him to the fifth spot in the lineup. The 23-year-old could undoubtedly improve in plate discipline since he sports a dreary 3.0% walk rate and 26.9% K-rate, but as long as he continues to hit, he belongs on fantasy rosters.

Sam Hilliard - OF, Colorado Rockies

Sam Hilliard entered the 2020 campaign with as much hype as any rookie making the Opening Day roster, but has sadly disappointed with his overall numbers to date. The lefty swinger has picked up his play over his last 14 games, however, slashing .295/.340/.682 with five homers, seven runs, seven RBI, and two steals for good measure. Hilliard has struggled against southpaws primarily, but with the addition of Kevin Pillar, the Rockies don't need to put him in the lineup against these hurlers. With Hilliard starting to get more comfortable in the majors and able to hit righties exclusively, he's in the environment to rack up some late root stats the rest of the way.

Ke'Bryan Hayes - 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Since his promotion to the majors on September 1, Pittsburgh Pirates second-ranked prospect Ke' Bryan Hayes has turned heads with his bat over the past week. The former first-round pick went 2-for-5 with a double and a home run in his big-league debut and is currently 7-for-18 (.389) at the dish this season. Although he's sitting at an unattractive 31.6% K-rate, he's stayed in the mid-teens in this category over his minor-league career, so we shouldn't read too much into the small sample. Hayes doesn't hit for the most power or for the highest average among all prospects, but he can do a little bit of everything to help fantasy squads over the final three weeks.

Andres Gimenez - SS, New York Mets

Andres Gimenez has raked in September since he was activated from the injured list in late-August. He's 8-for-20 this month with seven runs and six RBI, and he now has a souvenir for hitting his first career long ball last week. The Venezuelan native was generating fantasy appeal prior to his stint on the COVID IL with seven steals, but he's now forced Amed Rosario out of playing time with his bat as well. With the Mets trying to chase down a playoff spot, they'll continue to keep Gimenez's hot bat in the lineup, and fantasy managers should also follow suit.



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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 6

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

We're looking at a trio of low-owned right-handers this week, as Dane Dunning, Zach Eflin, and Tyler Mahle all impressed over the weekend. Each is available in more than 80% of Yahoo leagues, so they are likely out there in most standard 12-team leagues.

Roster percentage is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 08/24/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

 

Zach Eflin, Philadelphia Phillies

16% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 19.1 IP, 5.12 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 24.1% K-BB%

08/29 vs. ATL: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 8 K

Eflin has cranked up his strikeout game this year, raising his strikeout rate 15% from a mediocre 18.3% in 2019 to an elite 33.3% in 2020. Going into play Sunday Eflin is among the top-10 best strikeout starters in baseball (min. 20 IP), matching names like Lucas Giolito, Sonny Gray, and Blake Snell. His 39.9% chase rate is the second-best in baseball behind only Shane Bieber. All of the pitchers covered in this column pitch surprisingly well, heck, it’s in the title, but it’s especially surprising coming from Zach Eflin. Eflin had made 74 career starts coming into the season, and we knew exactly who he was. A fringy, occasionally streamable right-handed with so-so stuff and low upside. The type of pitcher who is more valuable in real baseball than fantasy. A budding Mike Leake, if you will. But this type of strikeout rate can be ignored no longer, so let’s dive into the Phillies righty and see how Eff-lin good he actually is.

In the first few years of his career Eflin typified so-so stuff. He throws low-to-mid 90s heat (though he used to be able to touch 97), has a weak slider that typically generates a poor whiff rate, a changeup to try and get lefties out (emphasis on the try, as lefties have a .373 wOBA against Eflin all time), and a show-me curveball. Good enough to keep a big league job, but nothing for us fantasy nerds to get excited about. However, Eflin has made two big changes in 2020 that could have us eying him up on the waiver wire. First, he’s transitioned from primarily a four-seam fastball pitcher to a sinkerballer. And second, he’s revamped his curveball and upped the usage, giving him a second breaking ball to compliment the slider.

First, we’ll start with the change I’m less enthused about, which is the transition to be a sinkerball pitcher. Sinkerballer is almost a derogatory term in 2020, as that style of pitching has lost much of its viability in the Statcast era, but for Eflin the pitch has been a godsend in terms of limiting power. Eflin served up 28 long balls last season and has a career 1.52 HR/9, but he’s only allowed three home runs for a 1.03 HR/9 this year. With an average exit velocity of 87.7 MPH and an average launch angle of three degrees, batters haven’t been able to clobber home runs like in seasons past. It’s worth noting that Eflin’s sinker did have similar Statcast metrics last season and batters managed a .471 SLG and ten homers off the pitch last season. Eflin has also surrendered nine doubles but zero home runs with the pitch thus far, so he may be on the fortunate side to have kept the ball in the yard. Batters have a .492 SLG against Eflin’s sinker all time versus a .490 SLG against his four-seamer. The change has undeniably worked to prevent home runs thus far, but whether it continues to work is questionable. The sinker isn’t the source of strikeouts for Eflin anyway, that would be his new and improved curveball.

Eflin’s curveball has always been an afterthought pitch for him. He threw it just 5.4% of the time in both 2018 and 2019, and last year batters feasted on Eflin’s curveball for a .308 AVG and .654 SLG. Eflin has more than  doubled the usage Things have been much better this season, as batters are hitting .133 with a .333 SLG against the pitch. The expected stats are even better for Eflin’s curveball, with a microscopic .079 xBA and a .094 xSLG. The swinging strike rate has risen to 17.8% this season, and the chase rate has skyrocketed from 30% last year to 47.8% this year. Batters seem to have a hard time recognizing the pitch this season. Below is a heatmap comparison of the swing rate on Eflin’s curveball this year (top) and prior to 2020 (bottom).

Eflin has stayed inside the zone more with his curveball this year, and batters aren’t swinging at it inside the zone. Instead, they are flailing away at the unhittable curveballs. While this is nice to see, this graph also puts in perspective just how small of a sample size we’re looking at here. All season long we have to add the sample size qualifier when talking about players, but this allows us to visualize it. Eflin has thrown just 45 curveballs all year, and just a few more swings or a few more pitches down long significantly changes things like chase rate, zone rate, and whiff rate, which are all crucial metrics to evaluate pitchers. So, while there’s a lot to like about Eflin’s curve, we are still far away from drawing definitive conclusions.

So when it’s all said and done, what exactly do we have here? Eflin is trending in the right direction, but this writer isn’t buying it yet. He used his curveball a ton in this start against the Braves, with his 22.9% curveball usage the highest of his career. If Eflin can continue to do that he’ll be worth rostering in mixed leagues, but I have to see more before I trust him. In a deeper league I would add him and keep him on my bench for the start against Washington. If that goes well and the curveball trend continues Elfin should have a two-start week against Boston and at Miami, which could be a great spot down the fantasy stretch.

Verdict: Eflin’s changed his pitch mix this year to feature his sinker and curveball more prominently. The curveball has been the primary source of his strikeouts, and it’s at least made Eflin worth monitoring in mixed leagues. He isn’t a must add in standard mixed, but not a bad dart to throw if you can hold him on the bench.

 

Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds

9% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 16.1 IP, 4.41 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 18.1% K-BB%

08/28 vs. CHC: 6.2 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 11 K

Mahle is something of a regular when it comes to surprising starts. The 25-year-old right-hander is known for putting up big starts and even extended hot stretches only for things to blow up in his face. This is my third year writing this column for RotoBaller, and this will be the third time I’ve covered a Tyler Mahle start. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of Mahle. He has been overly reliant on his fastball in the past, and lacks the put-away breaking ball to consistently generate strikeouts and prevent runs in the big leagues. That being said, I’m open-minded and more importantly I want for myself and every RotoBaller out there to win their league, so let’s dive into Tyler Mahle: 2020 Edition and see if he’s turned the corner or if it’s another flash in the pan.

As previously mentioned, Mahle has been overly reliant on his fastball throughout his major league career, but Mahle has been trying to change that. His fastball usage has gone down each of the last two seasons, and is at an all-time low this year with just a 52.1% usage rate for Mahle. In fact, Mahle used his fastball and slider almost equally in his start against the Cubs, throwing 46 fastballs and 44 sliders. The slider was the big strikeout pitch for him too, with 12 of his 19 whiffs coming on sliders. This effort brought Mahle’s swinging strike rate with the pitch up to a career-high 20%, along with a monster 45.5% chase rate for his slider. It’s worth noting that Mahle’s slider is sometimes called a cutter by certain pitch tracking systems, but it has the drop and movement of a slider. Here is an example from this most recent start.

That is clearly a slider, and pretty good one at that. Increased slider usage and movement could be exactly what Mahle needs to take the next step.

It’s excellent to see Mahle incorporate an effective slider into his pitch mix like this, but it should be said that Mahle is no slouch with the heater. Mahle’s fastball has above average velocity and spin, and batters have managed just a .161 BA and .170 xBA against the pitch this season. What’s better is the 35-degree average launch angle and 9.3% SwStr rate against the fastball. Batters are struggling to make contact, and when they do it’s typically a lazy flyball, as Mahle’s fastball has a 73.9% flyball rate. The launch angle revolution has taught us to love flyballs, but flyballs are still the least likely type of batted ball to become a hit. There can be some positives to being a flyball pitcher, such as a lower-than-average BABIP,  but we should still expect Mahle’s chronic home run issues to remain. Even so, Mahle is becoming a more complete pitcher and for the first time has this writer interested.

Verdict: Mahle has increased his slider usage, and combining that pitch with his effective fastball should give him a one-two punch for strikeouts. Home runs will be a problem, as will walks, but Mahle’s doing some interesting things. He’s worth an add in deeper leagues, and he is startable in his next matchup against St. Louis, a club with just a .715 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season.

 

Dane Dunning, Chicago White Sox

17% Rostered

2018 Stats (Double-A): 62 IP, 2.76 ERA, 2.40 FIP, 17.6% K-BB%

08/30 vs. KC: 5 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

Every week it feels like a new and exciting pitching prospect gets promoted to the big leagues and becomes the hot waiver wire commodity, but Dane Dunning has flown somewhat under the radar in his first two big leagues starts. He went toe-to-toe with Casey Mize in his debut and arguably out-pitched Mize, and thanks to a Gio Gonzalez injury Dunning got another chance on Sunday against the Royals and did not disappoint. The Royals couldn’t even muster a hit off Dunning over five innings, and went down on strikes seven times. Dunning may be best known as the “other” pitcher who went to Chicago from Washington in the Adam Eaton trade, and was always considered a notch below Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. He’s obviously no Lucas Giolito yet, and hopefully he’s no Reynaldo Lopez, but where in between does Dunning fall?

Part of the reason Dunning was never considered a super high-end pitching prospect was his poor fastball velocity. Dunning sat low-to-mid 90s prior to Tommy John surgery in 2019, but averaged just 91.1 MPH in his most recent start and topped out at 92.4 MPH. Batters have also smoked his fastball with an average exit velocity of 100.4 MPH against Dunning’s four-seamer. The pitch has a .226 xBA thanks to a 50% groundball rate, but it’s hard to trust a pitch that’s surrendering so much hard contact. This is still a very small sample size, especially for batted ball data, but something to keep an eye on regardless.

On the plus side, Dunning’s slider absolutely carved up the Royals lineup. He generated seven of his 14 whiffs with the pitch, which gives him a 30.9% whiff rate with his slider in two starts. The slider was absolutely dominant for Dunning in the minor leagues as well, which has helped him maintain a 10.2 K/9 over his minor league career. Here are a few examples from this start.

 

It’s especially nice to see Dunning unafraid of throwing his slider to a left-handed batter. Dunning has thrown his slider to lefties 23% of the time when ahead in the count and 18% of the time with two strikes. Most young pitchers do not have the confidence to throw a breaking ball to opposite handed batters and instead rely on a changeup, so it’s encouraging to see Dunning go after both righties and lefties with his best pitch.

Based on his first two starts and his minor league numbers, it seems like Dunning has big strikeout potential. He should also be an above average groundball pitcher, as he’s had a groundball rate of 49% or higher in every minor league season and has a 52.6% groundball rate through his first two starts thanks to his slider and a plus two-seamer. The four-seam fastball velocity is a bit concerning, and it would be nice to see Dunning do it against a lineup besides the Royals or Tigers, but there’s a lot to like here. And lucky for Dunning if things stay the same his next two outings would come against the Royals and Tigers. He’s worth adding in 12 teamers or deeper, and usable in the next matchup at Kansas City. Dunning’s rotation spot isn’t guaranteed, but if he continues to pitch well he could easily supplant one of Reynaldo Lopez, Gio Gonzalez, or Carlos Rodon, all of whom have been horrible thus far this year.

Verdict: A great slider and good groundball rate should help Dunning overcome poor fastball velocity. A soft AL Central schedule helps, as Dunning's next two starts would come against Detroit and Kansas City. He deserves to be on someone's team in 12-teamers or deeper.



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Hot Hitters and Hurlers

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

Last week we finally saw number two overall prospect Gavin Lux receive the promotion to the majors after the Dodgers held him at their alternate site for the first half of the season. After costing a mid-round draft pick in the preseason, many impatient owners have dropped the 22-year-old earlier this year despite his allure as a potential superstar. He's not the only top prospect to disappoint managers this season, making it important to remember that even the brightest youngsters aren't locks to impact fantasy rosters in any given season.

Today's focus won't look at high-end prospects, however, as we'll analyze some rookies who are pitching like veterans and others who are hitting like All-Stars. These players still have low ownership despite starting their careers off on the right foot, and we shouldn't sleep on any of them for the remainder of the season. 2020 is providing us with a plethora of rookie call-ups, and many of them are already proving to be difference-makers for fantasy teams.

 

Hot Hitters

Ryan Mountcastle - 1B/SS/OF, Baltimore Orioles

Since the Orioles recalled their fifth-ranked prospect Ryan Mountcastle, all he's done is hit in the big leagues. He bashed his first two homers on Sunday and is now slashing a superb .364/.432/.606 with four runs and five RBI through nine games. The 23-year-old is picking up where he left off after he slashed .312/.344/.527 with 25 bombs in 127 games at Triple-A last season, which helped him take home the International League MVP. With a disciplined approach at the plate so far in the majors, he can undoubtedly flirt with the .300 mark for the remainder of the season and provide appealing counting stats the rest of the way.

Sam Haggerty - OF, Seattle Mariners

Although Kyle Lewis is stealing the spotlight in Seattle with his play as a rookie, Sam Haggerty deserves some attention since receiving the call-up on August 19. The switch-hitter has recorded a hit in 11 of 12 games while stuffing roto categories with six runs, six RBI, and four thefts as the everyday two-hole hitter in the M's lineup. He's spanked one big fly to date, but we can't expect more than a handful of homers from his bat after he hit just 15 over his four-year minor league tenure. However, we can rely on Haggerty's speed after he averaged 44 stolen bases per 162 games played over his final two years in the minors. Haggerty can help close the gap in the SB column for managers looking for steals over the last month of the year.

 

Hot Hurlers

Devin Williams - RP, Milwaukee Brewers

Devin Williams has carved out a role for himself as a high-leverage reliever for the Brew Crew after beginning the year at the bottom of the pecking order. The right-hander surrendered his only earned run of the year on July 27 as he sports a salivating 0.64 ERA to pair with a 0.71 WHIP with 29 punchouts in 14 IP. Williams has picked up five holds to lead the club, utilizing a fastball/changeup combo that has generated the second-highest Whiff% (51.1%) of all hurlers this season. With Josh Hader around, Williams is blocked from ninth-inning duties, but his ratios and strikeout numbers can undoubtedly help out any fantasy squad.

Matt Foster - RP, Chicago White Sox

White Sox reliever Matt Foster has also worked his way into the back-end of the bullpen after beginning the season as an opener and early-relief option. He finally allowed his first runs of the season after Jorge Soler took him deep on Friday, but the 25-year-old is still impressing with a 1.13 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, and 20 strikeouts in 16 IP (35.1 K%). The right-hander has done a terrific job of neutralizing left-handed bats to a 0.87 BA with no extra-base hits thanks to a devastating changeup that's caused batters to whiff 50.0% of the time. Foster is still looking for his first hold in the majors, but with 31 career saves in the minors, it's only a matter of time before he works more high-leverage situations.

Dane Dunning - SP, Chicago White Sox

In just his second big-league start, Dane Dunning dazzled tossing five no-hit innings with seven strikeouts and one walk versus the Royals on Sunday. His previous start against the Tigers also saw him strike out seven through 4 1/3 before his night ended abruptly after serving up a three-run homer. With two solid starts after missing the entire 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, the team's eighth-ranked prospect should be on fantasy watchlists at a minimum. He'll face the same Royals team later this week where he makes a viable streamer, and with another productive outing, he'll become an even more popular waiver add.



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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 5

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

The young guns were on display this week, and we are going to break down three right-handers all 25 or younger who put up surprising starts this week. We'll look at someone we have a lot of hype for this year (Triston McKenzie), someone we had a lot of hype for last year (Corbin Burnes), and someone who's never had much hype at all (Logan Webb).

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 08/24/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

 

Triston McKenzie, Cleveland Indians

49% Rostered

2018 Stats (Double-A): 90.2 IP, 2.68 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 16.3% K-BB%

08/22/20 vs. CLE: 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K

There is always a humungous amount of hype when a top pitching prospect gets the call, and this hype rocket is headed straight for the moon after McKenzie carved up the Detroit Tigers for ten strikeouts on Saturday. It’s hard not to be excited after watching this start, as McKenzie showed us why he was such a highly regarded prospect in the first place. McKenzie is a four-pitch pitcher, with  a mid-90s heater, a plus curveball, a solid changeup, and a recently-developed slider. McKenzie showcased all four pitches in this one to great success, so just how good can the young right-hander be?

McKenzie’s fastball does not light up the radar gun like many top pitching prospects, especially right-handed pitching prospects. He was averaging 94.6 MPH in this one and touched 97 MPH, which is a little harder than advertised. His velocity was pleasantly surprising, but even more impressive about McKenzie’s fastball is the spin rate. He generated 2432 RPM with the fastball in this start, which would put him among the top-25 in fastball RPM among qualified starting pitchers if he qualified. This type of spin, along with McKenzie’s long arms helping get the ball to the plate from a shorter distance (seriously, check out this guy’s wingspan) should allow his fastball to play above its velocity. Here's one of the better examples from this outing.


Even a future hall-of-famer can't catch up to this high fastball

It was true in this outing, as Detroit hitters were behind McKenzie’s heat all day. McKenzie got eight swinging strikes on 46 fastballs in this start, and while I don’t expect him to maintain a 17.4% SwStr rate over a long period of time, he could maintain an above average whiff rate with the pitch.

Outside of the fastball McKenzie has a pretty well-rounded repertoire for a pitcher his age, and he was getting whiffs with all three secondary pitches in this start. I've taken one of each offering from this start and created a video sample below, so if you missed the start or want to get another look here's your chance.

Poor Miggy was taken to school again by the kid, this time on a sweeping slider


The batter didn't swing, but this was a good curveball that was almost in the perfect spot

McKenzie's changeup was most effective outside the zone. He left a couple over the plate that got barreled up. The solo homer he surrendered came on a mislocated changeup.

He used his curveball effectively against both right- and left-handed batters, and had his changeup to neutralize lefties and the slider for righties. None these pitches have outstanding movement compared to league average, but all are slightly above average. McKenzie doesn’t have one killer pitch, but every pitch in this repertoire is effective and should allow McKenzie to be productive at the major league level and generate decent strikeout numbers.

There’s a lot to like about McKenzie’s first start, and he’s definitely worth a shot in all formats. Obviously, young starters can be volatile and inconsistent, but McKenzie looked quite polished in his first start, especially since he hadn’t pitched in a game since 2018. The biggest question surrounding his value right now is staying power in Cleveland’s rotation. If Cleveland ever decides to welcome Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac back, there might not be room for McKenzie in the rotation. It’s hard to know what the future holds for Plesac and Clevinger after their controversy, but if McKenzie continues to pitch well they’ll have a hard time sending him back down.

Verdict: McKenzie has been the most impressive of all top pitching prospects recalled thus far, and deserves to be added in every league. The stuff is good-not-great, but a well-rounded arsenal of plus pitches should allow McKenzie to thrive.

 

Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers

51% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 21 IP, 3.00 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 17.2% K-BB%

08/23/2020 @ PIT: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 7 K

A popular breakout candidate last season, Burnes was astonishingly awful in 32 appearances last season. He posted an 8.82 ERA and served up 17 longballs in just 49 innings. What’s even more bizarre about that statistic is that home runs have never been an issue for Burnes. Outside of 2019 Burnes has only surrendered 16 home runs total between all levels in 319.1 innings. Because his 38.6% HR/FB rate was absurdly bad, many ERA predictors suggests that Burnes had not only pitched better than his actual ERA, but significantly better. No other pitcher has ever had an ERA over eight (8.82) and an xFIP and SIERA under four (3.37 xFIP, 3.55 SIERA) besides Burnes in 2019 (min. 40 IP). Well, now Burnes is back with a vengeance, carving up opposing lineups with a 33% strikeout rate. Juicy as that may be, owners are understandably worried that Burnes will drop an atom bomb on their ratios. Let’s dive into the turbulent right-hander and see if he’s really turned a corner.

If you are familiar with Burnes, you probably know that he boasts an amazing slider. It’s been the jewel of his repertoire for some time now, and it had performed well this season. Really well, in fact, as opposing batters haven’t been able to muster a single hit against the pitch. He also has a monster 26% SwStr rate and 30.8% chase rate with his slider. Wanna see something cool? Check out the slider he threw on Sunday to Kevin Newman.

 

Even though it’s in the zone, it’s nearly impossible for a right-handed batter to hit that pitch. Burnes is rarely in the zone with this pitch, with just 22.2% of his sliders catching the strikezone. The slider alone is good enough where Burnes could be an effective pitcher, but this young man has so much more to offer.

Going into play Monday only one qualified pitcher has a better fastball spin rate than Burnes, and that was Cy Young favorite Trevor Bauer. Burnes combines his elite spin with plus velocity for a pitch that can be truly marvelous to watch at times. The one below is a perfect example.

 

That’s a fastball. A fastball. 97 MPH at letters with a 99th percentile spin rate. Don’t feel bad Cole Tucker, the Babe himself would’ve swung right through it too. On paper, Burnes fastball should be among the league’s best, and overall his fastball has an above average 10.6% SwStr rate, but the problems come when batters manage to make contact.

Batters have a .273 AVG and .485 SLG against the pitch, but an even worse .366 xBA and .719 xSLG off Burnes’s fastball. It’s getting smoked for a 93.4 MPH average exit velocity. With metrics like this, it’s easy to see where Burnes’s home run issues came from, as 13 of the 17 bombs he gave up last year came off the fastball. Burnes may have been extremely unfortunate with home runs last season, but he is quite fortunate to have just a 4.5% HR/FB ratio this year. His 4.10 xFIP is higher in 2020 than it was in 2019 despite his ERA being more than five runs lower. The HR/FB ratio coupled with a .259 BABIP suggest that Burnes has been on the right side of the luck factor thus far, especially considering his bloated 14.7% walk rate.

Corbin Burnes’s stuff is undeniably good. We only cracked open the slider and fastball, but he’s got five pretty good pitches. His curveball has been every bit as good as his slider. Batters have zero hits against it on 49 pitches with an .030 xBA and 65.5 MPH average exit velocity. Not to mention it also has an elite spin rate at 2970 RPM. He also has a changeup and debuted a brand new cutter, both of which have swinging strike rates above 16% and opponent batting averages below .200. With all these high-quality options Burnes should have no problem racking up strikeouts, but maintaining stellar ratios is another story.

As previously mentioned, Burnes’s fastball gets crushed when batters make contact. And they don’t have to worry if they can’t make contact, because there is a pretty good chance Burnes will issue them a free ticket to first anyway. It’s so hard to look at Burnes and not see an ace, but he is still raw even at the age of 25. I still want exposure to him because the stuff is so good and the strikeout potential is sky-high, but mind the WHIP and ERA with Burnes. Maybe someday Burnes can put it all together and reach his full potential, but for now I would hesitate to use him against strong lineups.

Verdict: Burnes’s raw stuff is awesome, and his arsenal is chalked full of pitches that can generate consistent strikeouts. A bloated 14.7% walk rate and 90.8 MPH average exit velocity against will cap his upside, as Burnes is likely to post a high WHIP, and many of those runners will come around to score. Love the potential, but he’s not all there quite yet. He should be used against weak and neutral lineups, but avoid against powerhouses.

&nbap;

Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants

4% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 20.1 IP, 3.54 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 7.5% K-BB%

08/21 vs. ARI: 7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K

With all the top pitching prospects getting the call this year, it’s easy for a guy like Logan Webb to fly under the radar. While Webb has garnered little mainstream attention, the 23-year-old righty was considered San Francisco’s top pitching prospect coming into the year. Admittedly, San Francisco’s farm system is thin on pitching talent, but Webb has been completely off the fantasy radar in all but the deepest of leagues. That may begin to change after this impressive start, as Webb fired seven strong innings of two-run ball on Friday, striking out eight Diamondbacks en route to his first quality start and second win of the season.

Webb gets it done with a five-pitch arsenal, consisting of a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, changeup, and curveball. Webb’s fastball isn’t particularly overpowering, but he has averaged 93.8 MPH with it this season, putting him a full MPH above league average for a starter. It was the biggest swing-and-miss pitch for him against Arizona, as he netted six of his 11 whiffs with the heater in this start.

Owners shouldn’t expect these fastball strikeouts to continue, as Webb’s fastball only has a 7.2% SwStr rate on the year. He’s thrown 166 pitches, which means half of those swinging strikes came in one game. Webb’s fastball also has below average spin and movement. Webb has done a pretty good job of keeping the ball up in the zone where batters will tend to whiff at it, but it’s too early to call that a repeatable skill. It also requires precise command from the pitcher, and Webb has been shown to struggle with command both as a big leaguer and in the minors. It would be hard to envision Webb maintaining an above average whiff rate with his fastball, which will seriously restrict his ability to get strikeouts.

So, maybe the fastball isn’t the pitch for Webb to put up those juicy strikeout numbers. Most pitchers use their secondary stuff to secure punchouts, and if Webb can generate plus strikeout numbers it will be with his curveball. Or is it a slider? The two most notable advanced statistic websites disagree on which, as it’s classified as a slider on Baseball Savant, but as a curveball on FanGraphs.

So which is it? Let’s hear it from the man himself, who told the Mercury News the changes he made during the offseason, “With my curveball, you guys called it a slider, but now it’s actually a slider,” Webb said with a laugh. “It actually is called like a ‘sweeper slider’ now. I’ve been working on that for awhile (sic) now” (Source).

We’ll call it a slider because that’s what the big guy calls it, but it’s really more of a slurve in the truest sense. It’s hard and sweeping, coming in at 81.8 MPH and with 12.2 inches of horizontal break. The pitch has gained 2.5 inches of break, so Webb’s offseason work paid off. The results have been there thus far as well, since batters have hit just .214 with a .220 wOBA against the pitch thus far. Between this pitch, an already established changeup, and above average fastball velocity, the pieces could all be here for Webb.

There is one giant red flag with Webb, and that’s his meager 7.6% SwStr rate on his slider. A swinging strike rate below 10% on a breaking ball is pitiful, and with 9% overall swinging strike rate Webb may be the rare pitcher to have a higher overall SwStr rate than the SwStr rate on his breaker. He is doing something interesting things, and I’m definitely adding Webb to my watchlist, but he’ll need to do a little more before reaching mixed league viability.

Verdict: The strikeout numbers seem unsustainable, and Webb doesn’t have enough positive qualities yet to use him in a mixed league. He is someone worth watching, as the young righthander is actively developing his stuff.



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Promising Debuts and Red-Hot Rookies

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

Last week we saw several big-name prospects get the call to the bigs with the Giants, Braves, and Rockies all promoting their top prospects to help them out as we approach the midway point to this shortened season. Our attention this week won't revolve around Joey Bart, Cristian Pache, and Brendan Rodgers, however, as we saw two pitchers turn some heads during their major-league debuts over the weekend.

We'll also analyze some hot-hitting rookies who still have low ownership despite starting their careers off on the right foot. We shouldn't sleep on any caliber of prospect this season since 2020 is providing us with a plethora of rookie call-ups, and many of them are already proving to be difference-makers for fantasy teams.

 

Promising Debuts

Sixto Sanchez - SP, Miami Marlins

Acquired as the central piece in the J.T. Realmuto trade, Sixto Sanchez made his debut over the weekend and flashed his potential of becoming the ace of the Marlins staff for many years to come. The 22-year-old opened his career off with a bang by throwing a 98.4 MPH heater on his first delivery while hitting triple-digits on the gun five times during his 66-pitch effort. Sanchez ended up striking out four over five frames, earning himself his first win in the majors after allowing three runs on six hits.

Although the right-hander features a fastball in the upper-90s, he's stayed just under a strikeout per inning over his last two minor-league campaigns, but there's still a lot to love about his arm. Sanchez pounds the strike zone, which has kept his career walk rate in the minors at a sparkling 4.8%. He also keeps the ball in the park and on the ground with a lifetime HR/9 of 0.24 and a groundball rate just north of 50%. While he did serve up a pair of dingers in his major-league debut, his lengthy track history will prevail, especially in his pitcher-friendly home park. The Marlins would be wise to keep Sanchez in the rotation where he has a chance to take over ace status immediately.

Triston McKenzie - SP, Cleveland Indians

Triston McKenzie dazzled in his big-league debut, whiffing 10 batters and allowing one run over his six-inning gem. Utilizing a fastball/curveball combo primarily, the 6'5" righty got his opponents to whiff 13 times on 30 swings against these pitches (43.3% Whiff%), with nine of his punchouts coming on his four-seamer. McKenzie's only blemish on the night came against fellow rookie and ex-teammate Willi Castro, who took him deep on a changeup in the fourth inning.

With Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac still in the team's bad books, McKenzie will make another start for the Tribe this week. If he impresses again, it'll be difficult to send him back to the team's alternate site if the club needs to make room for either of these hurler's return. However, they will take caution with their top-10 prospect since he missed the entire 2019 campaign due to a back injury. McKenzie posted a terrific 29.4% K-rate, 3.16 ERA, and 1.03 WHIP over his previous two seasons combined in the minors, but he seems to be picking up where he left off despite the lengthy absence. As long as McKenzie is on the Indians roster, he should be owned in all formats.

 

Red-Hot Rookies

Alec Bohm - 3B, Philadelphia Phillies

It took 10 games for Alec Bohm to crush his first bomb in a big-league uniform this past Sunday, but the 24-year-old has otherwise taken the league by storm. The Phillies top prospect is slashing .344/.462/.531 with six runs and four RBI, all while maintaining a keen eye at the plate with more walks (seven) than strikeouts (six). His 18.1% chase rate is over 10% lower than the league average, and when with his innate selectiveness, he's crushing the ball to an even more impressive 57.7% Hard Hit% and 15.4% Barrel%. Bohm looks like the real deal so far into his young career and would look good on any fantasy squad.

Jake Cronenworth - 1B/2B/SS, San Diego Padres

Since filling in for an injured Eric Hosmer in late-July, all Jake Cronenworth has done is hit in his versatile infielder role. The left-handed swinger has played every position on the dirt for the Friars while slashing a cool .347/.410/.627 with three long balls and a sharp 3.7% K%-BB%. Cronenworth has been an extra-base hit machine with eight doubles and a pair of triples, providing sturdy results with 13 runs and 12 RBI through 24 contests. Although he wasn't a highly-touted prospect, he's certainly playing like one and is (Cronen)worth investing in all fantasy setups.

Jose Trevino - C, Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers are enjoying the hot bat of Jose Trevino since Robinson Chirinos landed on the injured list earlier this month. The 27-year-old has four multi-hit games over his last five games, upping his batting average to .324 on the year with five of his 11 hits going for extra bases. Trevino hasn't typically hit for much power over his minor-league tenure, but he rarely strikes out thanks to a high-contact approach. If he can keep finding holes in the defense, he can undoubtedly help out fantasy teams in two-catcher formats.

Jonathan Hernandez - RP, Texas Rangers

Jonathan Hernandez has established himself as a high-leverage reliever as a member of the Rangers bullpen so far this season. The 24-year-old has been lights-out with five holds, a 1.56 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 22 strikeouts in 17 1/3 IP, numbers resemblant of a future closer. With a 97.4 MPH sinker to keep the ball on the ground and a wipeout slide piece that has generated a tantalizing 55.6% whiff rate, Hernandez has the stuff that any manager would want in their ninth-inning arm. Although Rafael Montero still stands in his way from getting the job this season, Hernandez can still impact fantasy rosters with his ratios and strikeout numbers.


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Deep Dive: Jake Cronenworth Every Penny

The kid has been on an absolute tear since getting the everyday job in San Diego. The 26-year-old Jake Cronenworth was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason. He has been worth every bit of it.

He was a speed-first prospect prior to 2019. Cronenworth posted double-digit stolen bases every season from 2015 through 2019. The power just developed last season as he eclipsed double digits, barely, with 10.

In 2020, he is boasting a triple slash of .347/.410/.627. and compliments that with offering the power and speed combination with three home runs and a stolen base on the season. However, there appears to be a lot that suggests this could be more than just a hot streak.

 

Advanced Stats

Unfortunately, there is no MLB track record. Currently, Cronenworth is sporting a 13.3% strikeout rate and a 9.6% walk rate. The strikeout rate is good enough to rank inside the top 8% of the league. These rates are fantastic and really show how good of an eye for the ball Cronenworth has.

This almost mirrors the 12.1% walk rate and 15.3% strikeout rate he posted in Triple-A last season. Although it was just 88 games, it shows the plate discipline and eye for the ball has been there. In fact, the last time he struck out over 20% of the time (which is still better than league average) was in High-A back in 2016.

Currently, the ISO is .280. However, power has never been his game. We did see the growth in power begin last season with an ISO of .186. The wRC+ is way above average as of now as well at 169. He has fluctuated above and below 100 at various points in the minors but going back to his 2019 Triple A stint, it was 143. Again, the recent track record is in his favor. At age 26, he could finally be filling out and entering the prime all at the same time.

 

Batted Ball

The first thing to look at is the ground ball rate. It is higher than we would like to see at 40.6% but it has improved since 2019's 49.8%. Ground balls are not ideal, but with a plus speed tool (91st percentile sprint speed) he can get away with a higher ground ball rate. The 31.3% line drive rate will also play well to the batting average. The fly ball rate is an uninspiring 28% but with the line drive where it is at, along with the speed, it will lend itself well to a good batting average.

Cronenworth has also applied a more pull-heavy approach. His pull rate is 43.8% and his Cent% is 37.5%. The pull-heavy approach will help sustain the power gains we saw in 2019 and could lead to the higher outputs. We see the HR/FB rate increase in 2019 to 12.2% and it has also improved further in 2020 to this point and sits at 16.7%. The arrows continue to point upward.

 

Plate Discipline

Jake Cronenworth walk rate and lack of strikeouts to this point are supported by the plate discipline metrics. The lack of swing-and-miss is apparent in the SwStr%, which is only at 5.7%. Pair that with a whiff% of 18% and it speaks volumes of the hit tool. As mentioned before, the batting eye is also really strong. He does not swing at much outside the zone at all (O-Swing%: 20.8%). This is 9.1% better than league average.

Cronenworth does not swing outside of the zone much, but when he does swing outside the zone, he makes above-average contact (O-Contact%: 65.7%). Contact is a strength of his. He has a zone contact rate of 92.0% (5.7% better than league average) and an overall contact rate of 84.4% (9.2% better than league average). This is a recipe for success.

 

Splits

Jake Cronenworth is hitting both LHP and RHP very well. His triple-slash verse RHP is .350/.418/.683 and he literally walks (10.4%) as much as he strikes out (10.4%) against RHP. That is impressive. He also has hit LHP well to this point. The triple slash is .333/.375/.400 and is accompanied by a 117 wRC+. The concern is the strikeout rate against LHP of 25%. This is not terrible but if the rate increases, troubles could follow. The contact skill he flashes should hold the strikeouts back from being much worse but it is worth monitoring.

Cronenworth has also been pretty successful against all types of pitches.

  • Fastballs: BA .350/ xBA .413/ SLG .475/ xSLG .679/ wOBA .380/ xwOBA .485
  • Breaking: BA .333/ xBA .460/ SLG .750/  xSLG 1.155/ wOBA .473/ xwOBA .660
  • Offspeed: BA .357/ xBA .376/ SLG .929/ xSLG .791/ wOBA .521/ xwOBA .491

He is batting over .300 on fastballs, breaking pitches and offspeed pitches with expected batting averages in-line or better for each. There is also signs of power potential as well. It is hard to completely buy that due to the track record.

 

Statcast Data

Look at all that red! This is what we like to see. It helps back up the production just a bit more:

  • xBA: .402 - 100th Percentile
  • xSLG: .764 - 98th Percentile
  • wOBA: .427/ xwOBA: .507/ xwOBAcon: .573
  • Hard Hit%: 46.9%
  • Average Exit Velocity: 91.3 MPH
  • K%: 13.3% - 92nd Percentile
  • Whiff%: 18% - 89th Percentile
  • Sprint Speed: 28.5 ft/ sec - 91st Percemtile

These numbers further suggest he could still improve. Again, that is tough to do considering how great he has been but at least it shows he should sustain a good amount of the production moving forward. Cronenworth has a barrel rate of 15.6%. This is good enough to be in the 85th percentile and among the 186 hitters who have at least 50 batted ball events (or BBE), Cronenworth ranks 20th. This is further supported by a 50% sweet spot percentage. This rate leads the league of players with at least 50 BBE.

Sticking with the same parameters of 50 BBE, he also ranks 23rd in Brls/BBE% at 15.6% and 9th in Brls/PA% at 12%. Not too bad I’d say

Cronenworth's max exit velocity of 110.1 MPH is better than Brandon Lowe and Hunter Renfroe to name a few. Both of whom are known for their power. Where the power takes a small hit is the average exit velocity on fly balls is 89.9 MPH. It is not bad but it is a reminder that the balls he hits in the air, on average, are not hit as hard as balls he hits elsewhere. Essentially, for what Cronenworth lacks in raw power, he makes up in the hit tool and quality of contact. This combination can help the power play up.

 

Rest of Season Outlook

He will regress. There is no way around it. If you look at where the struggles could come from, it is from the outside portion of the plate. You can clearly see his whiffs and strikeouts are heavily concentrated on the outside portion of the plate.

This is where the plate discipline and quality of contact come into play. He can afford to sit on his pitch or preferred location or hit mistakes pitchers leave over the plate when they try to attack the outside part of the zone.

We discussed his lack of chasing pitches outside of the zone, so as long as remains patient and willing to sit on pitches, attacking the outside half may not work as well as pitchers think it will. But as of now, this is exactly how pitchers have attacked him.

It is not like he can’t hit balls away. He only really struggles on pitches thrown low-and-away. Cronenworth is hitting .182 in said zone. It’s an even uglier .167 on pitches low, away and out of the zone.

There is good news. The expected batting average on pitches low-and-away is .220 and the expected batting average on pitches low, away and outside the zone is .250. No, it is not fantastic but shows he could be better in those areas.

Another positive sign is when he does hit the ball, he manages to produce positive launch angles all over the zone.

This will help sustain the line drive rates as well as the quality of contact we are seeing early on.

Ultimately,  it has also been a small sample, but guess what? A 60 game season as a whole is a small sample. Pitchers would typically get a chance to truly adapt and the holes in the game would be exploited a bit more but with the constant chaos that is this short season, I don't anticipate there being enough time to adapt fully and that the hot run could last for the remainder of the 2020 season. Beyond 2020, there is enough here in the profile to really buy in moving forward as well and the price in dynasty formats are not as steep as we would expect. Buying high in this situation might be the smart move because the stock could continue to rise.



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Tigers Rookies and Low-Owned Youngsters

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

Last week we saw a couple of big-name hitters make their major-league debuts with the Phillies bringing up Alec Bohm, and Dylan Carlson finally able to play as the Cardinals retook the field. We also got some exciting news on Monday with the promotion announcement of Casey Mize, who'll make his much-anticipated debut this Wednesday. It's certainly an exciting time for dynasty owners who have waited on these prospects for a few years.

It's not only Mize who will be making his big-league debut for the Tigers this week as we'll look at two of his teammates who also received the promotion on Monday. We'll also analyze some lower-end prospects with low ownership who have already started their careers off on the right foot and will help us out during this frustrating fantasy season full of injuries and postponed games.

 

Eye On The Tigers

Tarik Skubal - SP, Detroit Tigers

Although Casey Mize is receiving the majority of attention in the Motor City, fantasy managers shouldn't ignore the team's top left-handed pitching prospect Tarik Skubal. After owning a 0.40 ERA and striking out 33 batters through 22.1 IP in 2018, Skubal followed that up with an equally as impressive 2019 season spent between High-A and Double-A. He finished the campaign with a 2.42 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and a 179/37 K/BB over 122.2 IP, helping him earn a top-50 spot on MLB Pipeline's rankings list.

Skubal has the profile to become a middle of the rotation arm at the big-league level, making him an intriguing player to watch now that he's likely here to stay. We'll get our first glimpse of the 23-year-old Tuesday night versus the White Sox, and you may want to add him before his FAAB price skyrockets.

Isaac Paredes - 3B/SS, Detroit Tigers

Ranked directly behind Skubal in the Tigers system is Isaac Paredes, whom the team acquired from the Cubs in 2017 for then-closer Justin Wilson. The right-handed swinger doesn't excel in any one fantasy category, but he produces sturdy numbers across the board after hitting .282 with 13 homers and five steals in Double-A last year. He does stand out in his plate discipline metrics, however, where his 57 walks almost outpaced his 61 strikeouts thanks to highly touted hand-eye coordination and feel for the strike zone.

Paredes hit out of the eighth spot in his debut on Monday, and recorded his first hit with a two-run single in his second at-bat of the game. The 21-year-old isn't a must-add for fantasy purposes despite the good start, but he is a player to monitor since he should receive regular playing time with his defensive versatility.

 

Productive Youngsters

Andres Gimenez - 3B/SS, New York Mets

Andres Gimenez has quietly posted sterling fantasy numbers since the calendar flipped to August and he began playing nearly every day for the Mets. The club's third overall prospect has recorded a hit in five of his last seven starts this month, while showing his defensive prowess at all infield positions except for first base.

Gimenez is up to a modest .263 BA for the year with eight runs, but you won't find much power production in his small frame and high-contact approach. However, he will boost your stolen base category since he swiped 28 bags in 117 games in Double-A a year ago, and is 6-for-6 so far in the majors. Managers looking for an SB helper should look no further than Gimenez.

David Peterson - SP, New York Mets

Speaking of the Mets, their 13th ranked prospect David Peterson is finding his groove in the starting rotation since filling the void left by Marcus Stroman. The left-hander owns a 2.91 ERA and 1.15 WHIP through four starts this season, and has looked increasingly comfortable on the mound with every outing.

Peterson isn't the most overpowering arm with a low-90s fastball, but his wicked slide piece has finished off batters with a 36.7% whiff-rate and a .143 BA. Peterson seems like a lock to remain in the rotation for the duration of the 2020 season, and while he'll undoubtedly experience some troubling outings in the bigs, his arm is serviceable in deeper fantasy formats.

Jordan Romano - RP, Toronto Blue Jays

Although Jordan Romano is the team's 30th-ranked prospect, he's provided the Jays with the best numbers of all pitchers on the big-league roster so far this season. Through 10 innings, the hometown kid has 13 punch outs with only one earned run and three hits allowed, cementing himself into a high-leverage role with the club. Romano was slated to pitch the ninth in Monday's game after anointed closer Anthony Bass worked the eighth against the bottom of the order, but the Jays offense blew the game open before he could get a chance to finish off the contest.

With Bass not providing overwhelming stuff and blowing his latest save opportunity, Romano has forced his way into the conversation for the ninth-inning role with Ken Giles still sidelined. The way manager Charlie Montoyo utilized his bullpen on Monday was a strong indication that Romano will take over closing duties, and his decision is not all that surprising. With a high-90s fastball and a wipeout slider that both have whiff-rates above 39%, the right-hander has fantasy value no matter what his defined role is.

Keibert Ruiz - C, Los Angeles Dodgers

Keibert Ruiz made an immediate impact in the big leagues by hitting a home run in his first career at-bat on Sunday, marking another prized Dodgers prospect who came out of the gate hot. The 22-year-old excelled at every minor league stop during his development but fell off a bit with a .261 BA and six homers in 2019. This drop in production after entering the year with a career .309 BA allowed teammate Will Smith to surpass him on the depth chart last season.

With Smith now sidelined, Ruiz has a chance to stick around on the major league roster if he can keep swinging a hot bat. His switch-hitting ability is a plus, and his elite 9.5% K-rate over his minor league tenure should translate to the majors and keep him out of extended slumps. With Austin Barnes not moving the needle offensively, Ruiz could force his way into a long-term role, giving him two-catcher league value.



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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 4

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

Something's fishy about this week's group...it's the Marlins! Miami has quietly built one of the most intriguing young staffs in the league, and we're taking a deep dive down south to break down Pablo Lopez and Elieser Hernandez. We'll also take a trip out west to check out Merrill Kelly's dominance in the desert.

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 08/17/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

 

Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks

60% Owned

2019 Stats: 183.1 IP, 4.42 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 13% K-BB%

08/14 vs SD: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 K

Between Robbie Ray, Luke Weaver, and Madison Bumgarner, the Diamondbacks have had a lot to be concerned about with their starting rotation this year. One pitcher they haven’t had to worry about is Merrill Kelly, who put up zeroes last time out against San Diego, and now sports a dazzling 1.71 ERA through four starts. The Padres are probably sick of Kelly too, since Kelly has faced them in his last two starts and allowed just one run to cross the plate over 12.2 innings. With a 1.71 ERA, three wins, and four quality starts under his belt already, many fantasy owners are wondering if we’ve stumbled onto a short season breakout.

Kelly gets it done with a five-pitch arsenal, consisting of a four-seamer, two-seamer, changeup, cutter, and curveball. Kelly’s arsenal may seem deep, but it’s sort of like the menu at a Cheesecake Factory. Yeah, there’s a lot there, but none of it is very good. His best pitch is probably the banana cream—err, I mean, the curveball. Kelly’s curveball has held batters to a .222 AVG this season, along with an 11.5% SwStr rate and zero extra base hits allowed. The results have been decent, but the pitch has about league average movement and has been getting smoked by opposing hitters for a 93.5 MPH average exit velocity. Here are a few examples of the curveball from this season.

 

 

It’s not a bad pitch, but it’s also not something that will completely befuddle hitters and probably can't be relied on for consistent strikeouts. Kelly doesn’t really have a breaking ball that’s capable of generating above average swing-and-miss, which is why his strikeout rate is only 21.6%, nearly 2% lower than league average.

What’s disheartening is that Kelly doesn’t have anything better in his back pocket. He’s gotten decent results out of his cutter at times, but with a .407 xBA (.250 actual BA) and .885 xSLG (.688 actual SLG), it’s not a pitch he can rely on regularly. His fastball zooms in at 92.2 MPH, which is far from impressive in today’s game. Kelly is usable in the right matchup, but at the end of the day his stuff just isn’t special, and he’s not taking a step towards stardom. His .233 BABIP and 100% LOB rate are a big reason for his success thus far.

Verdict: Kelly has looked good thus far, but the raw stuff is underwhelming and he seems to have benefited from good fortune thus far. One positive is that the Dbacks trust Kelly to pitch deep into games, and he could get you some quality starts or wins, even if they aren't great for your ratios. He is streamable in positive matchups, but I’d look to sell high if you can. His next start is at Oakland, which is a good pitcher’s ballpark but a tough lineup and he should probably be avoided in that one.

 

Pablo Lopez, Miami Marlins

2019 Stats: 111.1 IP, 5.09 ERA, 4.28 FIP, 14.5%

08/14 vs. ATL: 6 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K

The Marlins have a lot of interesting young pitchers on their team right now, and perhaps no one more exciting than Pablo Lopez. Lopez has carved up opponents through three starts this season, and sports a cool 2.25 ERA and a 28.4% strikeout rate thus far. Lopez gets it done with five pitches, a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, cutter, and changeup. Lopez may throw the same pitches as the aforementioned Merrill Kelly, but the two have drastically different strengths and styles. While Kelly uses his changeup as a show-me pitch, the changeup has been the catalyst for success for Pablo Lopez.

Lopez’s changeup has brought opposing batters to their knees, as hitters have mustered just a .154 AVG and .039 ISO against the pitch, along with a monster 30% SwStr rate. And if the strikeouts weren’t impressive enough, Lopez’s changeup also has a 75% groundball rate this season. Even if you manage to hit this thing, chances are it’ll be straight into the dirt. The changeup is mostly responsible for Lopez’s 17% overall SwStr rate, which is second best among qualified pitchers behind just Shane Bieber. Lopez’s changeup was his best pitch last season, but Lopez has improved his movement, spin, and velocity on the pitch this year to account for better results. Rather that spit out a bunch of numbers, let’s take a look at a few changeups from his start in Baltimore earlier this year.

 

It’s truly a marvelous offering, and good enough to be used against both right and left-handed batters. Few pitchers have a changeup that transcends being a show-me pitch to help with opposite-handed hitters and becomes a primary and dominant breaking ball, and Lopez looks to have it.

Outside of his changeup, Lopez rolled out a new offering this year, a 90 MPH cutter. He’s been using the pitch about 10% of the time. Batters have hit well against the pitch with a .375 AVG, but his .196 xBA and 86.1 MPH average exit velocity suggest better results could be on the way. The pitch has slightly above average drop and velocity, but is far from being a dominant offering at this point. Still, it’s nice to see him add another piece to his arsenal, and could give Lopez another reliable secondary pitch to compliment his fastball-change-curveball mix.

Speaking of the fastball, Lopez fires it in at 93.5 MPH on average and batters have a .221 xBA against the pitch. What’s most impressive about the pitch is its 85.2 MPH average exit velocity. Lopez has routinely induced soft contact over the course of his young career, and while that’s a skill that usually takes several full seasons of data to normalize, Lopez is certainly trending in the right direction. Altogether, there’s a lot to like about what Lopez has done this season, and the fact that he’s owned in just 27% of leagues is a crime.

Verdict: Lopez is doing everything we like to see out of a young pitcher. He’s improved on his best pitch for an elite strikeout rate, he’s added a new pitch to round out his repertoire, and he’s getting good contact and results with his fastball. He’s worth adding in 12-team leagues or deeper.

 

Elieser Hernandez, Miami Marlins

2019 Stats: 82.1 IP, 5.03 ERA, 5.58 FIP, 16.7% K-BB%

08/16 vs. ATL: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 9 K

We have yet another young Marlins hurler who put up an impressive showing this weekend against the Braves. Maybe it’s just that Atlanta’s lineup sans Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies is pitiful, but Miami starters Pablo Lopez, Daniel Castano, and Elieser Hernandez held Atlanta to a combined three runs between them. We already talked about Lopez, and Castano still has a ways to go before reaching mixed league radars, but Hernandez has been doing me interesting things dating back to last year.

Hernandez is a two-pitch pitcher, using hist fastball and slider almost exclusively. He has thrown 10 changeups this year, but it’s just a pitch he’ll use occasionally against left-handed hitters. It’s all about the fastball and slider with Hernandez, and the slider is a good one. It comes in slowing, at about 79 MPH, but has the second most drop of any slider in the league. Hernandez transformed the pitch last season, slowing it down a few MPH but greatly increasing the drop and RPM on the pitch, turning more into a slurve. The results have been fantastic as well, as batters have hit just .143 against the pitch with an 18.2% whiff rate since the beginning of 2019. Here are a few from this most recent start.

 

Pretty impressive stuff from Hernandez, and batters have struggled to keep up with the pitch this year, with a .100 AVG and 20.45% whiff rate thus far. This is a pitch that can be relied on for strikeouts, and if nothing else we could expect Hernandez to maintain an above average strikeout rate because of his slider.

The issue with Hernandez lies in the rest of his repertoire, or lack thereof. His only other pitch is a four-seam fastball, and it comes in around just 91 MPH. Batters have only hit .206 with a .202 xBA thus far, but last season they hit .297 with a .259 xBA, so it’s hard to trust the fastball results through three starts. He does generate a 26% infield fly ball rate with the pitch thanks to a 24-degree average launch angle against, but that launch angle has also been Herandez’s Achilles heel throughout his career. Hernandez had a horrible case of Gopheritis last season, allowing 2.19 HR/9, which was the ninth-worst rate among pitchers with at least 80 innings last year despite pitching half his games in Marlins Park, one of the best stadiums to keep the ball in the yard. Hernandez is an extreme flyball pitcher, sporting a 49.1% flyball rate last year and has a 52.9% rate this year. It’s hard to see him maintaining his 5.6% HR/FB ratio all season, and if that ratio trends towards league average Hernandez could be in for a rude awakening.

Verdict: Hernandez’s slider looks like the real deal, but he doesn’t have much else to fall back on. I’d be interested in him as a spot starter, especially if I was lacking in strikeouts, but he’s not a set-and-forget player yet. Hernandez could be a hot sleeper next year if there are rumblings of a new pitch or changeup development during the spring.



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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 3

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

This week we're looking at a trio of pitchers who put up surprising strikeout numbers over the weekend. Nathan Eovaldi dominated the baby Blue Jays, while Framber Valdez put up nine strikeouts in Oakland, and Kevin Gausman shut down the powerful LA Dodgers.

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 08/10/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

 

Framber Valdez, Houston Astros

25% Owned

2019 Stats: 70.2 IP, 5.86 ERA, 4.98 FIP, 7.3% K-BB%

08/08 @ OAK: 7 IP, 7 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 BB, 9 K

Valdez has been straight dealing for Houston as of late, allowing just one earned run and striking out 17 over his last 13.1 innings pitched. The final numbers were ugly for Valdez last season, but the sinkerballer lefty looks to have something up his sleeve, and could be a sneaky add on the waiver wire, as he’s out there in over 80% of Yahoo leagues. Valdez gets it done with four pitches, a two-seamer, four-seamer, curveball, and changeup. As previously mentioned, he’s a sinkerballer, primarily pitching off his two-seamer, which has been his trademark as a prospect. Valdez consistently maintained a groundball rate better than 55% in the minors, and has a career 63.2% groundball rate at the major league level. Groundballs are nice, but the newly found strikeout numbers are what has fantasy owners interested in the Astros’ southpaw.

The curveball has been Valdez’s primary source of whiffs this season, as the pitch has a 20.8% SwStr rate and batters are hitting just .080 against it. Valdez has shown signs of improvement with the pitch, gaining over an inch of drop and break this season compared to 2019. The curveball has always garnered the best results for Valdez, and it looks like he’s taking it to another level through his first three appearances.
Valdez has made one more big change with his pitch mix, and that’s the abandonment of his four-seam fastball. Pitch F/x has registered just three four-seamers all season, and he didn’t throw a single four-seam fastball in his start against Oakland. That’s probably for the best, as batters have crushed Valdez’s fastball for a .345 AVG and .172 ISO over his major league career. To fill in the gaps he’s increased his sinker usage to 60.1% and his changeup usage to 9.7%, both career-highs. While ditching the four-seamer should prove fruitful for Valdez, owners should be wary of him leaning too heavily on his sinker.

As a left-handed sinkerballer pitching for Houston, it would be easy to compare Valdez to Dallas Keuchel, but unlike Keuchel, Valdez seems incapable of inducing soft contact, and it brews skepticism in this writer. Batters have hit Valdez’s fastball well throughout his career, no doubt, but his sinker hasn’t fared too much better, with a .292 AVG and .120 ISO all time. Valdez’s sinker has been creamed this year, with a 94 MPH average exit velocity against. He also has a 59.2% hard hit rate against, which is the second-highest among pitchers with at least 30 batted ball events. The groundballs are nice, but a fast groundball can sneak through the infield for a hit quite easily. Valdez is also allowed an increased line drive rate at 24.5%, and his 5.8-degree average launch angle is by far the highest of his career.

Valdez has looked good in his last two outings, but he’s fooled us in the past with hot stretches.  His meager 9.7% SwStr rate makes me question the sustainability of his 26.8% strikeout rate. His improved 60.1% zone rate has helped him cut walks from 13.4% last year to 4.2% this year. Still, it’s hard to trust what Valdez has done considering how hard he’s getting hit. Even though Valdez has a .313 BABIP, his .272 xBA is nearly 40 points higher than his actual .235 AVG against. He’s usable in a good matchup, but the foundation is shaky with Valdez.

Verdict: Valdez has ditched his troublesome four-seamer and seems to have found new success, but his 59.2% hard hit rate against and .272 xBA suggest lady luck has been on his side thus far. He could be streamed in his next outing at home against Seattle, but following that he’s in Coors Field and away against San Diego, two tough matchups.

 

Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

8% Owned

2019 Stats: 102.1 IP, 5.72 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 18.2% K-BB%

08/09 @ LAD: 6.1 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 6 K

Gausman has quietly been pitching well for San Francisco, piling up 21 strikeouts in 16 innings over his last three starts. Gausman has long toyed with fantasy owners, often seeming on the brink of a breakthrough, only to come crumbling down. It’s perhaps why he’s available in more than 90% of leagues despite delivering the strikeout numbers we thirst for in fantasy. Owners would much rather take a chance on a relative unknown like Zach Plesac or Christian Javier than return to someone who has burned them before, like Gausman. Even so, it’s undeniable that Gausman possesses some great talent in his arm, and like his ex-teammate Dylan Bundy, a ticket out of Baltimore could be just the thing Gausman needs to turn the corner. Unlike Bundy, Gausman has pitched outside of Baltimore for a year and a half with Atlanta and Cincinnati, but struggled with injures for the Braves and was a reliever for the Reds. This turn with the Giants may be his first chance as a starter while truly healthy and liberated from Baltimore, and ironically his last chance to make it as a starter in the big leagues.

Gausman works with a four-pitch repertoire, a four-seamer, a slider, a changeup, and a splitter. The splitter has always been Gausman’s defining pitch. He lives and dies with his splitter, and it’s been an elite offering throughout Gausman’s career, which is why it’s surprising to see Gausman succeed even though the pitch has underperformed relative to past seasons in 2020. Below are a few graphs charting the splitter’s performance in key metrics on a year-by-year basis.

Batters are hitting .240 against Gausman's splitter, the highest mark of his career.

Gausman is getting less drop on his splitter this season compared to previous years.

The whiff rate on Gausman's splitter is below 20% for the first time in his career.

Obviously, it’s still a small sample size, but the metrics on Gausman's splitter are trending downward. They are still respectable, but below where he usually hovers around. The pitch has lost about two inches of drop, and whiffs are down about four percent thus far. Whenever we’ve seen success from Gausman in the past, he’s been doing it with his splitter, but this time around Gausman is getting it done with other pieces of his arsenal.

Anyone who watched Gausman’s most recent start noticed one thing, and that was the fire coming out of his right arm right from the beginning. Gausman averaged 97.1 MPH with his heater in this one, and routine popped 98 and even hit 99 on the gun. In fact, even his last pitch of the game was a 99 MPH fastball that Cody Bellinger turned around for a single. That single caused Gabe Kapler to pull Gausman even though Gausman had only thrown 80 pitches and was still popping 99 MPH, and the Giants bullpen immediately blew the game, but as they say, it's easy to second-guess an obviously incorrect decision after it blows up in the manager's face, but I digress. This was the hardest Gausman has ever thrown as a starter, and the first time he’s averaged more than 96 MPH in a start since 2017. Not only did Gausman throw harder, but he attacked the upper portion of the zone more than ever. Below is a fastball heatmap from this start (top) compared to a heatmap prior to 2020 (bottom).

Gausman racked up the whiffs with his heater too, inducing nine swinging strikes with his fastball, out of eleven swinging strikes total. The combination of high velocity and that deadly splitter are what made Gausman such an exciting prospect and breakout candidate in years past, and if he can maintain this velocity and tweak his splitter just a bit back to previous years, he could be in line for a nice little pandemic year. The fact that he’s pitching half his games in San Francisco, while homers were such a problem for him in other ballparks, is just gravy.

Verdict: Increased velocity could give Gausman just what he needs to sustain success as a starter. If he can get a little more drop on his splitter Gausman will have a deadly strikeout combination. He’s burned this writer, and likely many readers before, but Gausman’s doing interesting things and deserves a pick up in deeper leagues, and to be on the watch list in shallow ones. His next two starts are at home against the A’s and Angels, two teams with strong lineups on paper, but haven’t quite performed at a high level yet. The friendly confines of Oracle Park certainly make it easier to roll with Gausman in those outings.

 

Nathan Eovaldi, Boston Red Sox

59% Owned

2019 Stats: 67.2 IP, 5.99 ERA, 5.90 FIP, 11.6% K-BB %

08/09 vs. TOR: 6 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 10 K

Eovaldi has a lot in common with Kevin Gausman. Both were highly-touted, hard-throwing right-handers, both sport an above-average splitter, and both have dealt with their share of ups-and-downs and injuries throughout their career. In fact, their career stat lines are eerily similar. Eovaldi has 47 wins and a 4.29 ERA over 939.2 innings during his career, while Gausman has 47 wins and a 4.29 ERA over 945.2 innings for his career. Both also had disastrous seasons in 2019, putting up career worst ERAs north of 5.50. Maybe it’s east coast (or Boston) bias, maybe it’s his memorable playoff performances, or maybe it was his clearly defined role coming into the season (okay, probably this one), but it’s a wonder why Eovaldi is so much more highly owned than Gausman.

Unlike Gausman, Eovaldi does sport a more rounded repertoire, throwing four pitches (fastball, cutter, splitter, and curveball) regularly, with the occasional show-me slider tossed in the mix. It was two years ago when Eovaldi first came to Boston that his slider took a backseat to a harder cut-fastball, which was a key piece of Eovaldi’s 2018 success. The cutter has hardly been the reason for Eovaldi’s success this year, as batters have walloped the pitch for a .379 AVG and .690 SLG. Instead, Eovaldi is having newfound luck with his curveball, a pitch that has been a source of pain for him in the past.

Batters are struggling against Eovaldi’s curve to the tune of a .188 AVG and .062 ISO against, which is a stark improvement compared to previous seasons, as opposing hitters knocked Eovaldi’s curveball around for a .276 AVG and .204 ISO prior to 2020. Eovaldi has gained two inches of drop with his curveball this season, and has induced a monster 26% SwStr rate with a 44.4% chase rate on the pitch this season. He racked up eight whiffs on the curve in this start against Toronto, along with 19 swinging strikes total. Eovaldi is still firing his fastball upwards if 97 MPH on average, so an improved curveball would add a new dimension to his game that gives Eovaldi previously untapped strikeout potential.

The curveball improvements are exciting, but it was just two years ago that Eovaldi’s cutter was adding a new dimension to his game and activating previously untapped strikeout potential. There’s still reason to be interested, but like with Kevin Gausman, Eovaldi is a house of cards that could come crumbling down at a moment’s notice.

Verdict: Increased curveball drop is letting Eovaldi pile up punchouts like never before, and in a pitching-starved landscape he’s definitely worth owning. He’s someone that belongs on a short leash, as things can go sideways in a hurry for Eovaldi. His next two starts are at the Yankees and home to Philadelphia, so if you can flip him after this 10 K start you should consider it. Otherwise he’s on the bench until August 25 at the Blue Jays.



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Next In Line and Hot Starters

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

Over the last week, we saw a couple of promising pitching prospects get the call to the big leagues with the Padres bringing up Luis Patino and the Phillies handing the ball to Spencer Howard on Sunday. Both hurlers experienced some growing pains in their debuts, but it's never a given for even the brightest prospects to immediately excel after a promotion.

Since Patino and Howard are not the top prospects on their respective clubs, we'll look at whether these arms are stepping stones for their higher-end teammates to join them in the majors later this season. We'll look at these names plus analyze some more hot starters who should only improve as the season progresses.

 

Next On The Call List?

Alec Bohm - 3B, Philadelphia Phillies

With the arrival of the Phillies second-ranked prospect Spencer Howard, many are speculating as to when their top prospect Alec Bohm will reach the majors. Phillies manager Joe Girardi gave some insight on the third baseman recently stating, "when a [prospect like] Alec comes up, you want him to be able to play almost every day. He's got to play a lot, so we'll continue to look at that and make the decision when it's the right time." The team could certainly use an upgrade at the hot corner with Jean Segura batting a paltry .188, so a promotion could be on the horizon with the team looking to contend for a playoff spot.

Bohm can hit for power and average as displayed during his Triple-A campaign, where he hit .305 with 21 homers in 125 games. The 2018 third overall pick made his way from Low-A to Double-A over the course of the year, showing superb plate discipline numbers with a 73/57 K/BB. Bohm is also capable of playing first base, so the team has some versatility with Rhys Hoskins able to cover an outfield spot. There are several paths to playing time for 24-year-old who will arrive in 2020; we'll just have to wait for the Phillies to open up a roster spot for him.

MacKenzie Gore - SP, San Diego Padres

The Padres made headlines last week by calling up their third-ranked prospect Luis Patino to serve as a bullpen option with the club. With the Friars off to a strong start this season, they are looking to capitalize on the unique 2020 structure by utilizing an "all hands on deck" approach. The Padres are known to bring up their prospects in a timely manner with Chris Paddack and Fernando Tatis Jr. surprisingly making the 2019 Opening Day roster. They also optioned starter Joey Lucchesi to their alternate site, perhaps opening the door a crack for their top prospect Mackenzie Gore to join the team.

By looking at Gore's 2019 stats, there's no debate why he's the top-ranked pitching prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. The left-hander dominated over 101 innings between High-A and Double-A, striking out 135 batters to a 1.69 ERA and 0.83 WHIP. He stays in the mid-90s with his fastball while mixing in a slider and curveball primarily, but he will throw a low-80s changeup sporadically. He has command of the strike zone with all four pitches and profiles as a true ace to the rotation. The Padres will have a dynamic one-two punch with Gore and Paddack for years to come, and there's optimism we'll get a glimpse of that in 2020.

 

Hot Starters

Nate Pearson - SP, Toronto Blue Jays

Everyone around the Blue Jays organization was ecstatic when Nate Pearson made his big-league debut at the end of July. He didn't disappoint either, firing five scoreless frames versus the defending World Series champion Nationals. It got a little rockier in his next start by allowing three runs in another five-inning performance versus the Braves, but we got a glimpse of his potential dominance. Pearson was lighting up the gun with his 98-99 MPH fastball velocity, while his slider has proved equally effective with a 42.3% Whiff rate. With these two weapons alongside a disappearing changeup, Pearson has the arsenal to succeed immediately in the bigs and should be owned universally.

Carter Kieboom - 3B, Washington Nationals

MLB's 23rd ranked prospect Carter Kieboom broke summer camp with the Nats, but the team hasn't committed to playing him full time just yet. It's a curious decision since he's held his own with the bat during his infrequent playing time with five hits in 16 at-bats entering Monday. Although Kieboom is still striking out at a high clip (38.1% K%), his 23.8% walk rate has made up for some of his losses. If he could generate consistent playing time, he could further improve his plate discipline and overall hit tool faster with fewer days off. We can buy in once the 22-year-old pushes Asdrubal Cabrera off the hot corner, which should happen sooner than later.

Brady Singer - SP, Kansas City Royals

Kansas City Royals top right-handed pitching prospect Brady Singer has been impressively consistent over his first four major-league starts. He's thrown exactly five innings in all of his games, allowing more than two earned runs in just one of these outings. His 22/8 K/BB isn't anything to scoff at either as he's now got his first win out of the way after beating a formidable Twins lineup Sunday. For a rookie with no Triple-A experience, Singer is holding his own in the majors and could be finding his groove with a few starts under his belt. He's worth monitoring, at a minimum, to see if he can take another step forward in his development.



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Kyle Tucker May Be Arriving

Coming into this season, Kyle Tucker was widely viewed as an intriguing outfielder due to his prospect pedigree and power-speed profile while hitting in a stacked Astros' lineup. Tucker slashed .266/.354/.555 with 34 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 536 plate appearances at Triple-A last season, leaving fantasy players drooling over his upside. Tucker could be had at a bargain due to concerns over his playing time, being drafted at pick 164 in Main Event NFBC leagues. This combined with his tools made him one of the darlings of the fantasy baseball community.

Those question marks over his playing time came to the forefront as the season began, as manager Dusty Baker elected to keep Tucker out of the lineup for two of the first three games. This made many wonder if it would take a trade for Tucker to have an opportunity to realize his full potential. Things have changed since then, as Tucker has now become a fixture in the Astros' lineup, playing in every game since missing two of the first three.

In this article, we'll take a look at some encouraging signs from Tucker in the early season. Tucker has shown improvements in his batted ball profile which leaves me bullish on his fantasy value for the rest of the season. His surface stats have not yet aligned with his peripherals, providing a buying opportunity to acquire Tucker at a nice value. It appears that Kyle Tucker may be arriving!

 

Surface Stats vs. Actual Stats

*Does not include 08/06 game vs. Diamondbacks

BA xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA xwOBAcon
.237 .274 .395 .465 .283 .328 .452

Expected stats look at the exit velocity and launch angle of each battled ball to assign a hit probability based on previous outcomes of similar balls in play. This does not factor in ballpark and defense, focusing on the expected outcome of each batted ball. Players with higher expected stats than surface stats are generating better contact than their outcomes would indicate. Using expected stats allows us to find buying opportunities in hitters whose value is depressed because of low surface stats. As we can see in the chart, Kyle Tucker is one of those hitters. 

Another encouraging sign in the chart is Tucker’s .452 xwOBAcon, which is a stat that excludes walks and hit by pitches, using Statcast data to only measure the contact. Tucker ranks 58th in MLB in this category, ahead of stars like Trevor Story and Mookie Betts. This demonstrates that Tucker is generating quality contact, which bodes well for the future. Let’s explore how Tucker is faring vs. specific pitches to find more context here.

Improvement vs. Fastballs

2019 122 Fastballs .344 BA .301 xBA .594 SLG .610 xSLG .413 wOBA .402 xwOBA
2020 77 Fastballs .471 BA .411 xBA .824 SLG .805 xSLG .550 wOBA .519 xwOBA

As we can see here, Tucker has improved significantly against fastballs. This shows that he has started to adapt to the increased velocity of major league pitching. 

Just take a look at how he crushed this Robbie Ray fastball for his first homer of the season:


The problem is, Tucker is having major difficulties with breaking and offspeed pitches.

Struggles with Breaking and Offspeed Pitches

Breaking .071 BA .187 xBA .071 SLG .225 xSLG .062 wOBA .180 xwOBA
Offspeed .000 BA .113 xBA .000 SLG .119 xSLG .000 wOBA .106 xwOBA

Tucker is really getting stymied by these types of pitches. His O-Swing% has increased from 35.4% to 41.3%, so it appears that he's having trouble laying off the junk.

If Tucker can lay off these pitches more often and focus on pummeling the heater, we could see the rookie start to really take off.

Platoon Splits

vs. LHP 13 PA .385 BA .385 OBP .615 SLG .431 wOBA
vs. RHP 28 PA .160 BA .250 OBP .280 SLG .224 wOBA

While it is a small sample, it's a good sign that Tucker is excelling against LHP as a left-handed batter. We'll see these stats normalize and skew towards righties, but the fact that Tucker can be competent against southpaws will ensure that his bat stays in the lineup. This is important because we have seen how the Astros have maintained a short leash with their young outfielder.

Lineup Slot

1st 6 PA
4th 5 PA
7th 9 PA
8th 20 PA
9th 1 PA

Tucker has predominantly hit in the bottom-third of the order, but it's good to see the Astros willingness to move him up in the order when one of their other hitters is out of the lineup. If Tucker starts to swing a hot bat, we could see him get bumped up, which would be a huge boon to his fantasy value.

 

Final Thoughts

So here we have a hitter with prospect pedigree who has finally found a place in this stacked Astros' lineup. Tucker already has two stolen bases, which is huge in this current climate of speed scarcity in MLB. With the improvements he's showing in his batted ball profile, we can likely expect the home runs to start coming as well. This is exactly the type of hitter you should be targeting right now. If you could pry Tucker for an outfielder like Kyle Lewis, I would endorse that move with full confidence. Tucker is about to arrive - get on the train before it takes off!



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Batting Stance Adjustments Leading to Early Breakouts

It has been a wild and crazy season, to say the least, to start 2020. With samples still very small, the numbers are off a lot of the time in one direction or the other. This is why diving in and finding tangible change can be the difference in the production sustaining or it being a hot streak. This drove me to look into swing mechanics and launch angle changes to a few hot starters. Next thing you know, there were five I have found so far.

We will take a look at the swing changes and the underlying numbers that are showing changes to follow. If or when production follows a tangible change, I buy in. Let’s see what these five players who have made some adjustments look like under the hood.

The last thing I want to note is that I am not a scout and do not pretend to be. I simply find the obvious changes and show them. The big takeaway for me here is digging into the numbers following the changes.

 

Eric Hosmer (1B, SD)

Unfortunately, Eric Hosmer has missed most of the year due to a stomach ailment. He is currently on the IL. He could be a solid hitter this year if in fact the fly-ball tendencies continue. There is not much to add in terms of changes in the numbers or production due to the lack of games played and overall available data.

This is just simply something to monitor and if your are in a position to take on a stash to your team, buy low or pick him him off the waiver wire if he has been dropped.

 

Carlos Correa (SS, HOU)

Carlos Correa continues to hit well to start the year. He is currently slashing .389/488/.639 and we have seen imoproved plate discipline as well. The early walk rate is a career-best 14.0%. The strikeout rate is also down to 18.6%. The lowest it has been since 2015.

He is chasing a lot less to start the year. With an O-Swing% of 26.1% and a swinging strike rate of just 8.7% he is showing the plate discipline but also not swinging through a lot of pitches either. He has managed to increase his O-Contact rate and keep his Z-Contact rate similar to last season's rate. This shows he is being selective and when he swings, contact is made.

The launch angle has come down a bit to 18.6 degrees. This is still a career-high mark and with it the ground ball rate continues to remain low. Currently sitting at 28.6% while the line drive rate is heavily benefited by this. This will play well to the batting average and BABIP sustaining a bit.

We are finally seeing the potential and health come together. With these changes, I buy in on Correa for the 2020 season.

 

Kyle Lewis (OF, SEA)

This is one of the more noticeable swing changes entering 2020. We have seen Lewis jump to an unsustainable start in 2020 but that does not mean he can't hold on to some of the production. He was a target for late power, but with the new approach and swing, it could lead to less home runs but also less of a hindrance on the batting average as well.

Currently, Lewis has three home runs and a triple slash of .375/.423/.583. He is on an absolute tear. The expected stats show regression but he could still sustain solid production. The big red flag is the strikeout rate. It is at 36.5%. Similar to last years start. He also whiffs a bit much so the whole in the swing is very real. Unfortunately, the average launch angle has since dipped from 6.6 degree when the tweet went out, to just 1.1 degrees. This is concerning. It has caused the ground ball rate spike back up to nearly what it was in 2019.

The line drive rate (44.8%) is amazing and will lend itself to sustaining a better batting average than expected but the swing-and-miss will combat that notion. He does have plus-speed as well and will further assist the BABIP and batting average floor.

We also see improved plate discipline with the chase rate (25.9%) down 7.8% from 2019. The SwStr% also dropped 2.7% down to 15%. Which is still higher than we want to see but still an improvement and something positive to note.

He is also swinging less but making similar contact so that could help explain the dip in SwStr%. Ultimately, he is a sell high candidate. I expect a decent year but the peripherals suggest he could be in for a bit of a fall from grace. If you can't find a buyer, ride the hot streak until the wheels fall off.

 

Wil Myers (OF, SD)

Wil Myers has always been a player I could not quit. He made mention of pivoting his back foot and we can clearly see it occurring here. He is still striking out more than we would like. That issue started last year.

He has stolen a base and hit three home runs to date, so that alone already provides value at his ADP entering this year. He has adjusted the ground ball rate since this tweet went out. It has improved to currently a career-best 34.8% with most of the improvement going towards the fly ball rate.

Myers has also started hitting the ball up the middle. pull rate is down 7.4% and the cent% is up 7.1%. Almost an exact trade off. He has also improved the plate discipline. Chasing the ball a lot more and decreased his awing strikes. He has done so, while also improving his contact rate overall and in the zone.

The statcast date is all positive as well. Every metric for hitting is in the 74th percentile or better. With the exception of whiff% that is. This explains the strikeouts. Wil Myers is back and you should be starting him with confidence moving forward. At the very least, take advantage of the market and need for steals and shop him.

 

Bradley Zimmer (OF, CLE)

Bradley Zimmer has pedigree and offered promise a couple of years ago. He has since battled through injuries and has been left behind in the minds of fantasy owners. He is finally back from injury and playing semi-regularly. He has made a swing adjustment two-straight seasons.

The big reason this is worth noting was the abrupt increase in the launch angle. He is attempting to elevate the ball more. This is not surprising as the league has made this transition as a whole.

The launch angle currently sits at 29 degrees even. This is after posting seasons with: 0.6, 5.3 and 8.2 degrees. In response, you have seen a huge drop in ground balls (37.5%) and the bid jump taking place in fly balls (37.5%). With this, the pull rate has climbed tremendously as well. Up to 43.8%, he is committing to the fly ball revolution.

With playing time up in the air and inconsistent, it is hard to make room on your roster right now but it is worth monitoring and if the production begins to follow, scoop him up.

 

Nick Castellanos (OF, CIN)

I posted this the morning before Nick Castellanos took Bieber deep for his sixth home run of the season. He is on an absolute tear. The Statcast numbers (broken down in the thread) show it. Everything seems sustainable to a point. Sure, he will regress a bit but with this swing change, came a launch angle increase which in turn increased the fly balls. That change will be the catalyst for sustained production. He also began pulling the ball more. Combining the two in this park will greatly benefit the power production.

 

Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS, SD)

This thread is fully up-to-date as I am writing this article. It breaks it all down. He has improved his plate discipline early on this year. Tatis Jr. also increased his launch angle and has been more of an all-fields hitter. This allows for him to outproduce certain metrics.

Regardless, he has been every bit worth of that late first or early second-round pick you had to use on him. With three home runs and three stolen bases early on, he is providing everything you were hoping to get from him and more.



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Hot Prospects To Watch: Close Call-Ups and Hot Starters

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting an up-and-coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

Last week, we looked at the league's top prospects who were on the verge of receiving their big-league promotion. Among that group, Jo Adell was called-up Monday, Nate Pearson dazzled in his first career start against the Nationals, while Nick Madrigal showed us his potential by recording a four-hit game on Sunday. With the service time deadline now in the rearview mirror, it's open season for prospects to join their major-league clubs without the team losing an extra year of control.

There was plenty of speculation surrounding a few big-name prospects last week, which ultimately left us disappointed when they didn't get the call. Today we'll assess a few of these situations, plus we'll take a look at some less-coveted prospects with low ownership who have already made a splash with their Opening Day squads.

 

Close Call (Ups)

Casey Mize - SP, Detroit Tigers

Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire got the baseball world excited over the weekend by cryptically telling reporters that they needed to promote a starter from their taxi squad. All signs pointed towards the 2018 first overall pick Casey Mize, but alas, we were let down when Daniel Norris received the nod.

Mize is the top-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in baseball and will debut at some point with the Tigers in 2020. He impressed in the minors a year ago, holding a 2.55 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP while showing elite command of the strike zone displayed by a 5.3% walk rate. The 23-year-old's 24.7% career K-rate isn't as overpowering as some other pitching prospects, but with a mid 90s fastball, and a finely-tuned slider/splitter combo, he doesn't need to rely on whiffs to achieve success. If an injury opens up another spot opens in the Tigers rotation, proactive managers should add Mize before waiting for an official announcement.

Joey Bart - C, San Francisco Giants

In less than 24 hours, Giants catching prospect Joey Bart went from "every expectation" that he'd get called up soon to "nowhere near imminent" after the team proclaimed he wasn't MLB ready. Perhaps it was exaggerated excitement on behalf of the team's beat writers, but it got our juices flowing nonetheless.

Selected second-overall behind Mize in the 2018 draft, Bart shined in his first professional season in the minors winning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year and defensive player of the year. A hit-by-pitch on his catching hand forced him to miss six weeks of action in 2019, which may be a factor into why he's still playing at the team's alternate site in Sacramento.

Although the Giants selected another catcher 13th overall in this year's draft, Bart is destined for the everyday backstop role in the Bay City. With Buster Posey absent this season, he'll get a chance to prove why at some point with the club in 2020. Bart's also taking reps at first base to open up another path to playing time, which is wise since Tyler Heineman has done a nice job behind the plate so far. He likely won't impact single-catcher leagues once he gets the call, but you can certainly do worse in two-catcher setups.

Forrest Whitley - SP, Houston Astros

When Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander landed on the injured list last week, many thought this was finally the opportunity we would see the team's top prospect Forrest Whitley make his big-league debut. Instead, it was the club's sixth-ranked prospect Cristian Javier who received the promotion to the rotation, but more on him later.

The main reason Whitley wasn't brought up is that he's still dealing with some arm soreness that initially stemmed during an intrasquad game in summer camp. He's since encountered more pain at the team's alternate site in Corpus Christi, so it doesn't appear the Astros will rush the 2016 first-round pick after he missed time in 2019 with shoulder fatigue as well. By the time Whitley is healthy enough to receive a promotion, the Astros will likely have other more experienced options to use in the rotation down the playoff stretch.

 

Hot Starters

Brusdar Graterol - RP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Brusdar Graterol was a controversial piece in the Mookie Betts deal, and the flamethrowing right-hander is making the Red Sox regret not acquiring him this offseason. Entering Monday with the Dodgers, Graterol has allowed one earned run over 4.1 innings pitched with four strikeouts and no walks. The control is worth noting for the young hurler who averages just over 99 MPH with his sinking fastball, and that pitch has also helped him generate an outstanding 72.7% ground-ball rate. The 21-year-old's dynasty appeal is growing by the outing, but his ratios can still help fantasy teams in 2020 despite the fact he may not enter any save situations this year.

Cristian Javier - SP, Houston Astros

Despite only making two career starts over Double-A, Cristian Javier impressed in his first major league start versus one of the toughest lineups in the league. The right-hander limited the Dodgers to just two hits and a walk over 5 2/3 of one-run ball while striking out eight in the no-decision. Javier has had serious control issues over his minor-league tenure, but after throwing 65.9% of his pitches for strikes last Wednesday, his command in his next start will tell us if it was a fluke. Javier is worth adding even if his rotation spot is short-lived, but it's hard to see him return to the bullpen if he continues to succeed.

Nico Hoerner - 2B, Chicago Cubs

Cubs top prospect Nico Hoerner is off to a terrific start after showing us glimpses of excellence in 20 games with the club last season. The 23-year-old is entering Monday hitting .292 (7-for-24) on the campaign with five runs and five RBI while playing nearly every day at second base. After hitting .327 in the minors in 2018, he followed that showing with a .292 BA a season ago while posting commendable plate discipline metrics that have translated to the majors. Hoerner doesn't possess much power with just eight homers across all levels during his professional career, but he'd be a welcomed addition to any fantasy lineup looking for a BA helper.

Evan White - 1B, Seattle Mariners

Evan White hasn't wowed us so far this season if we're looking solely at raw numbers, but there is optimism with some of his batted ball metrics. Although he's hitting a mere .139 (5-for-36) with one dinger for the M's this season, he's currently in the 91st and 80th percentile in Hard% (55.0%) and Exit Velocity (91.8 MPH) respectively. Those numbers would have finished among the league leaders in 2019, but there is a glaring issue in his 39.0% K-rate. Considering White posted a 20.3% mark over his minor league career, he's bound to improve in this area and will start living up to that six-year deal that he inked with the club in November.



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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 2

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

This week we're looking at a pair of pitchers who disappointed after signing big contracts, but both have shown a little something extra during their first couple starts of the season. Tyler Chatwood has looked like a Cy Young candidate for Chicago, while Yusei Kikuchi dominated the Athletics over the weekend.

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 08/03/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

 

Tyler Chatwood, Chicago Cubs

63% Owned

2019 Stats: 76.2 IP, 3.76 ERA, 4.28 FIP, 11.4% k-bb%

08/01/20 vs. PIT: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 11 K

Chatwood was a popular breakout candidate two years ago when he inked a 3-year, $38 million dollar deal with the Cubs. Many believed a ticket out of Colorado would help Chatwood thrive, and his 3.18 road ERA during his tenure with the Rockies help strengthen the case. Admittedly, this writer was always skeptical of the Chatwood hype. His xFIP was actually better at Coors Field than away from it, and his pitiful 6.5 K/9 and 1.6 K/BB ratio didn’t show much room for upside. He floundered in the rotation and soon became an overpaid middle reliever, but as the Cubs’ pitching options thinned out this offseason Chatwood found himself back as a starter and is pitching better than we’ve ever seen him. So what, if anything, has changed to help Chatwood transform?

One thing that jumps out about Chatwood are the changes in his pitch mix. Chatwood has a deep arsenal, consisting of a four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastball. He also throws a curveball and the occasional changeup. In his first two starts Chatwood has drastically reduced his four-seam fastball usage. His career usage is 31.2%, but this season he’s thrown the pitch just 8.9% of the time, and threw only four four-seamers in his start against Pittsburgh. This is probably in Chatwood’s best interest, as batters have hit his fastball well historically, with a .272 AVG and .156 ISO against it all time. He’s supplemented the reduction in fastballs with an increase in cutter usage. The cutter is the gem of Chatwood’s repertoire, as batters have just a .182 AVG and .116 ISO against the pitch, along with a 14.5% SwStr rate. Chatwood looks to be taking the route of Patrick Corbin, Matthew Boyd, and many other pitchers, in that he’s leaning on his best pitch to find success. He is throwing the pitch 27.2% of the time, which doesn’t approach the levels of Corbin and his slider, but it’s still the most Chatwood has ever used it.

The improvements go beyond simple usage, as Chatwood is throwing his cutter better than ever as well. Below are a few graphs charting the progress he's made over time.

 

Chatwood's gained over an inch of break on his cutter in 2020

Chatwood is also throwing his cutter harder than ever before, an impressive feat at 30 years old.

While this is encouraging to see, it’s important to remember how small of a sample size we’re dealing with right now. Chatwood has only thrown 49 cutters thus far, which isn’t nearly enough to draw definitive conclusions from yet. Really, this entire season won’t be enough to draw definitive conclusions from, so it’ll be extra important for us to monitor trends like this one to get the jump on who’s real and who’s a fluke. Thus far, Chatwood is looking mostly real.

Regression is clearly going to come for Chatwood, as his 90$% LOB rate and .250 BABIP are both wholly unsustainable for any extended period of time, especially since his most used pitch, the sinker, has a .323 xBA (.250 BA) and .619 xSLG (.313 SLG). Opposing hitters have also smoked him for a 41.7% hard hit rate against, which would be the highest percentage of his career. That number is uncharacteristic for Chatwood, as he’s normally done an excellent job of limiting hard contact in his career.  Chatwood is still a great pitcher to take a chance on, especially in today’s pitching landscape, but know that his current performance is not sustainable.

Verdict: Chatwood has increased his cutter usage and quality, which has led to newfound dominance for the right-hander. He won’t maintain a 0.71 ERA or 31.9% K-BB%, but Chatwood looks to have made legitimate improvements and is worth adding in all leagues.

 

Yusei Kikuchi, Seattle Mariners

5% Owned

2019 Stats: 161.2 IP, 5.46 ERA, 5.71 FIP, 9.2% K-BB%

08/01/20 vs. OAK: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1BB, 9 K

Kikuchi had a rough go during his first major league season, leaving many to wonder whether the former NPB ace had what it takes to pitch in the big leagues. He went largely ignored in fantasy drafts, but the 29-year-old southpaw has garnered some interest after putting up a dominant performance on Saturday against Oakland. The nine strikeouts were the second-most in his career, and it was only the second time Kikuchi started a game and did not allow a run to cross the plate (min. 2 IP). Kikuchi had a few good starts last season and always managed to fall back into bad habits, but can the Japanese left-hander finally find some consistency?

Kikuchi’s early season success shares traits with that of Tyler Chatwood, in that Kikuchi has heavily featured a cutter during his first two starts. Unlike Chatwood, the cutter is a new pitch for Kikuchi. Last year Kikuchi primarily relied on his slider and curveball as secondary pitches, but this cutter looks like a completely new weapon for him. It’s much harder than his slider, averaging 92.8 MPH, and also has more drop than the slider.

The sharp break and above average velocity should make the pitch more effective against right-handed batters, which is great since righties clobbered him for a .304 BA and .545 SLG last season. Through his first two starts righties have hit .250 with a .286 SLG against him. What’s perhaps most impressive about his cutter in such a small sample size is the .060 xBA, versus the .139 actual BA. The pitch has been dominant, and according to Statcast it should’ve performed even better.

The cutter is the main reason to be interested in Kikuchi, but it’s also worth noting that he’s greatly increased his fastball velocity. Kikuchi is averaging 95.5 MPH on the gun this season, which makes him the hardest-throwing left-handed starter in the majors as of writing this. He’s also gained over 150 RPM on spin rate, and his .211 xBA on the fastball suggests the pitch should perform much better than it did last year, when batters hit .326 with a  .622 SLG off Kikuchi’s four-seamer. Between the increased fastball velocity and brand new cutter, there’s a lot to like about Kikuchi.

Verdict: A fancy new cutter and an increase in fastball velocity have Kikuchi looking like an entirely new pitcher. He’s only thrown 9.2 innings, so we need to be careful not to overreact, especially since Kikuchi’s final numbers were atrocious last year, but Kikuchi is worth at least taking a chance on in 12+ team leagues. He’s out there in 95% of leagues, so check your waiver wire, as he can be had for free in most cases.



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Starting Pitcher Waiver Wire - Week 3

11 days of baseball down, hopefully another 58 to go. For all those who picked up Pablo Lopez, or Matt Shoemaker for two starts, it was a rough way to start the season. That’s just the reality of how this year is going to play out. The schedule will take completely unforeseen turns at a moment’s notice, we've just got to roll with the punches and hope for the best.

That’s why moving forward it would be wise to shift the focus slightly more on a pitcher’s ability as opposed to his matchups. Of course, matchups should still be taken into consideration but in 2020 there is no guarantee that juicy matchup with the Marlins or Orioles will even take place. Therefore it's best to make additions to your roster that are as "matchup proof" as possible.

Speaking of which, as of Friday, the Baltimore ball club is averaging five runs a game. Meanwhile, the Juan Soto-less World Series Champs are averaging 3.4 runs. So, in this upside-down season do we even know what a favorable matchup looks like anyway? With all that being said here are the waiver wire pickups at starting pitcher entering fantasy week three. If the descriptions didn’t give it away, the players are listed in order of waiver wire priority.

 

Cristian Javier, Houston Astros

18% rostered

Here’s the story of Cristian Javier so far. He was a bonafide stud in the minors, winning Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2019. He is the sixth-ranked prospect in the Astros organization and owns a 13.5 K/9 across three minor-league stops in 2019. He was then suddenly is called up to face the best lineup in baseball. In his Major League debut, he proceeds to strike out eight Dodgers, a team that even after that start only average 6.86 strikeouts per game. He gave up one earned run, one walk, and two hits. Next up comes a Diamondbacks team who average 2.8 runs a game, are hitting .196 as a team, and are bottom of the league with just two dongs.

Look at that resume, he couldn’t have dreamed for a better start to his career, and yet he is still only 18% owned. Justin Verlander isn’t walking through that door any time soon. As long as Javier keeps pitching anywhere close to how he did in his debut, he will be in Houston to say. His BB/9 was right around 4 in his minor-league career, which is the only concern to be had about the Dominican. However, that’s definitely a bridge to cross if you come to it, the upside his too high to let it hold you back, especially knowing how good the Astros are at developing aces.

Get this guy rostered, his upside is twice as high as anyone’s on this list for this season.

 

Brady Singer, Kansas City Royals

33% rostered

After an off-season and "summer training" of uncertainty surrounding Singer's status with the big-league club, he only went and started their second game of the season. He three-hit the Indians, giving up two runs, walking two, and striking out seven in five innings. That’s quite the debut.

He then followed it up with a similar outing against the surprisingly not terrible Tigers. Again 2 ER, and 2 BB, but just three Ks in five innings. At 23-years-old the sky is the limit for the 2018 first-round pick. He has a great 94mph sinker, 83.7mph slider combo, but unfortunately, that’s all he really has at the moment. He’ll have to develop his change-up and add another pitch to his arsenal in the future, but for fantasy purposes, it should do for now.

Next week he looks to be a two-start pitcher with tough matchups against the Cubs and Twins. That’s if he keeps a regular schedule. Between the COVID-19 uncertainty and the way, organizations treat young arms that’s no guarantee. Singer is a player who should be rostered based on the combination of his current production backing up his pedigree. However, he likely won't scratch the surface of his potential until next season.

 

Griffin Canning, Los Angeles Angels

34% rostered

2019 was not the debut season Griffin Canning was hoping for. Shoulder inflammation derailed an otherwise promising campaign. However, this season the L.A native will be looking to stay healthy and put it all together. The 2017 2nd round pick certainly started off on the right track with an encouraging first start of the season against Oakland.

In that start, he gave up three runs in 4.1 innings leaving his ERA a little worse for wear but that will come down in no time. What’s important is the seven strikeouts, five of which came on the curveball. It was also impressive how he didn't seem to rely on one pitch, he threw the fastball and slider 25 times and the curveball 24 times. He sprinkled in the change-up eight times and didn’t give up a hit on it.

It'll be a thought matchup for him on Saturday night against the Astros but don't be to alarmed if he doesn't dominate. Not many do against Houston.

His 15.8% swinging-strike rate in that outing is another great indicator that Canning could be making up for lost time and firing on all cylinders this season. It’s a small sample size but perhaps the fact he did get hit hard and gave up some runs was actually good for fantasy purposes. This way the smart owners can sneak in and grab him now before he gets into form.

 

Matt Shoemaker, Toronto Blue Jays

20% rostered

Congratulations to all those who read the last starting pitcher waiver wire article, and picked up Shoemaker. The reward for doing so was six innings of one-run ball, four strikeouts, a 0.83 WHIP, and a quality start against a good Rays team. Unfortunately, his second start against the Phillies was postponed due to COVID-19 related issues within the Phillies organization. He’ll likely get his next start against a slumping Ronald Acuna and the Atlanta Braves.

According to Baseball Savant Shoemaker threw his curveball eight times in his first start of the season. In five games last year, he threw it a total of ten times. If the bearded veteran can utilize that pitch to compliment his great Split Finger, he will be making hitters look even more lost at the plate than he usually does.

It’s always been a question of health with the former Angel, but as long as he’s healthy he is an asset on a fantasy roster.

 

Zach Plesac, Cleveland Indians

42% rostered

Wow, 8 IP, 11 K, 0 BB, a 0.38 WHIP, and a 20.4% swinging strike rate against the Chicago White Sox. Take a bow, Zach Plesac. With that being said, don’t expect this kind of start every time out. Adam Plutko tamed the Windy City team with relative ease the day before, and on the 28th Aaron Civale struck out nine in six innings. So perhaps the south-side Chicago squad is just the ultimate swing-and-miss team.

This start came out of nowhere, his track record isn't particular jaw-dropping and he didn't exactly make many 2020 breakout lists. The 25-year-old could definitely be set for an impressive sophomore season but not to this extent. His K-BB% will likely finish a lot closer to the 10.1 it was last season, than the 40.7 it currently sits at.

Luckily Plesac figures to miss the thunderous Twins, but the Reds are no joke either. The Indian's fifth starter is set for a Monday start against Cincinnati and usually would be a two-start pitcher. However, the Indians are scheduled five days off between Thursday the 6th and Tuesday the 11th of August.

The righty featured his slider much more in his previous outing than he did last season. Plesac himself said he is trying to throw more off-speed pitches this season. The fastball did dip one mph in this start, but it still sits at a healthy 92.9 mph.

Sorry to put a damper on the new-found Zach Plesac hype. However, he is still worth picking up with caution in the small chance the 362nd pick in 2016 turns into the most improved player in baseball. Heck, if it is a legitimate indication of what to come, the Indians will have the best rotation in baseball.

 

Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers

37% rostered

The best way to describe Burnes's first start of the season against the Cubs on the 25th was “short and sweet.” One run on just two hits while striking out six in three and a third is great, especially considering that all but one hit came in the first inning. Let’s be generous and chalk that up to nerves.

Control is the biggest question mark for the hard-throwing righty. It came to be an issue again, giving up three walks. Simply put, however, there is a reason that a pitcher who last year had an 8.82 ERA in 49IP is 37% owned. In 2019 he had a 29.8 K%, to slightly make up for his 8.5 BB% and he was the victim of an astronomical .414 BABIP.

People are excited to see what he can do in 2020 because when Burnes is on, his stuff is lights out. The fastball sits at 96.9MPH, his cutter 94.6MPH, and even his change-up is even 87.8MPH. Whether that’s good or bad is debatable. Maybe he would be better served to differentiate the velocity of his off-speed stuff a bit more.

Another reason for optimism is that the righty has proven he can pitch at this level. In 38 innings of relief work in 2018 he had a much more attractive 2.61 ERA, and there is no real reason he can’t get back to that level but as a starter.

Initially, Burnes was slated to face St. Louis on Friday night but the game was postponed due to two positive tests from the Cardinals. Keep an eye on if his leash extends past the 75 pitches he threw against the Cubies, whenever that start may come.

 

Spencer Howard, Philadelphia Phillies

24% rostered

It doesn’t make much sense to pretend to know when the Phillies will play again. They have played a grand total of three games this season. They won’t be playing their series against the Blue Jays this weekend either as all activities at Citizens Banks Park have been canceled. According to an ESPN article published on Thursday, July 30th, “Major League Baseball said it would coordinate with health experts and the MLBPA concerning the Phillies' return to play.”

It’s likely that Howard will see some playing time this season, the question is when. Who knows how much work these starters are getting in while they are not playing. Not to mention he is simply better than Jake Arrieta, Vince Valasquez, and Zach Eflin at this point.

The 45th overall pick in 2017 had a 2.35 ERA, 11.15 K/9, 2.64 BB/9, and 0.59 HR/9 in 30.2IP in Double-A last season. Those were all career-worst numbers by the way. He pitched 35 innings at High-A and had better stats in every category. Also, in 2018 he pitched 112 innings in A ball so a pitch count wouldn’t be much of an issue in a normal season, let alone this condensed one.

It’s unclear how much “catch-up” teams with postponed games will have to do. By being forced to miss so many games there could be a lot of doubleheaders in the Phillies future. In which case Howard will be needed to step up.

The chances an owner has roster space to stash a prospect in such a short season isn’t that high. On the other hand, take a chance, and have some guts. Cut bait with a mediocre hitter, or perhaps one of the handful of struggling closers. Pick up the 24-year-old and be rewarded when the time comes.

 

Chris Bassitt. Oakland Athletics

27% rostered

With AJ Puk still on the injured list with a shoulder strain, and Bassitt doing a solid job against the Angels, he looks to have strengthened his grip on a starting job in the A’s rotation. He was pulled after four innings after reaching a pre-determined pitch count of 70. He struck out five, walked one, and allowed just five hits. Meaning he's still the proud owner of a pristine 0.00 ERA after his first outing.

Bassitt shouldn’t be overlooked on the waiver wire. He pitches for a good, young A’s team, and while he relies heavily on his sinker, he does have four other pitchers to keep hitters honest. He was a late bloomer due to various injuries including having Tommy John surgery in 2016, maybe some owners hold that against him. Fair enough, last season at the ripe old age of 30 was the first time he threw over 86 innings in a season. However, a 3.81 ERA, 8.81 K/9, and 10-5 record in 144 IP is no joke.

He should pad his stats even further on Sunday against the Mariners. Although to be fair, Seattle is in the top ten in the league in OBP, SLG, OPS, and as high as third in AVG. It's worthwhile adding that as of Friday, in true Seattle fashion, they have a 3-4 record to show for all that success at the plate.

If the A’s schedule is not interrupted, the righty is scheduled to face the Astros. Don’t start him in that matchup no matter how good his stats look after two games. Unless of course it’s a daily lineup league and it’s a desperation play.

 

Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks

12% rostered

If people were to predict which pitcher would take a no-hitter the deepest into a game thus far, it would be a long list before getting to Kelly. However, that’s what he did into the seventh inning against the Rangers on Tuesday. Frankly, the 31-year-old looked dominant, mixing up his pitches well. With that being said, don’t overreact to this start.

Tread lightly with the Houston native. Kelly has a track record of mediocracy (at best,) he also plays for a team that currently has the worst offense in baseball and the chances of him breaking out at 31 aren't exactly favorable. Oh, not to mention the D-backs next opponents after the Dodgers are a murderers row of the Astros, Rockies, Padres, and A’s.

The priority level of picking up Kelly is fairly low, which is reflected in his ownership percentage even after his great start. However, he is a veteran coming off his first full major league season. Perhaps he picked up a thing or two in 2019 and he’s at least guaranteed to provide innings. Be extra careful in leagues that factor wins and losses while the D-backs struggle to put runs on the board.

 

Daniel Ponce De Leon, St. Louis Cardinals

3% rostered

Most of the players that feature on this waiver wire entice fantasy owners with dazzling starts the week prior. Well, try this on for size, 3 ER and 3 BB in 3.2 IP. Calm down people, don’t everyone run out to put in claims at once. Okay, sarcasm aside there was more to this start than meets the eye.

First of all, it was against the Minnesota Twins; they still have a deadly lineup even if they haven’t yet recaptured the powerful form they had last season. Also, eight strikeouts is a great total for the player that’ll affectionately be called DPDL. Granted, his control is basically none existent, the reason he was pulled after 3.2 IP is because it took him 85 pitches to make it that far. In 48.2 IP last season his BB/9 was an alarming 4.81.

The fact he walks and strikes out so many batters is even more remarkable considering last season he threw his fastball 70% of the time. That seems almost impossible, but the encouraging part is if he is able to bring that down and improve the curveball that he featured in his last start, things may turn around. Miles Mikolas is out for the season so if DPDL is given the chance to prove himself with another start he’ll have to really bring his A-game.

This is a speculative, upside based, deep-league pick-up. Unfortunately now with news of the Cardinals having to postpone games due to COVID-19 it probably isn’t worth spending a roster spot on DPDL at the moment, but definitely keep an eye out for when he will make his next start.



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Red Alert: Luis Robert's 115.8 MPH Smash Means Something

In the hullabaloo of MLB’s opening weekend, you may not have noticed that Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox — he of the .337 ISO at Triple-A Charlotte — announced his presence with authority on Friday night. In the second inning of his MLB debut, Robert strode to the plate, stood 60 feet and six inches away from Jose Berrios, and proceeded to smash the first pitch of his MLB career at a velocity of 115.8 MPH. To give that achievement some context: last year, there were exactly 20 players who hit a ball harder than Robert did in his first career hit. We’ll get to their names and stats in a minute, but most of them are players you want to own.

I wrote this piece on Sunday morning, and by Sunday afternoon, Robert had added his first career home run. The dinger was a 419-foot blast that Robert smoked at 111.4 MPH. By MLB’s current leaderboards, that means Luis Robert now has the fifth and first-hardest hits of this season.

So it is that I have come here to sing the anthem of Luis Thunderclap Robert, First of his Name, Stealer of Bags, Destroyer of Baseballs and Pitchers, La Pantera and Child of Destiny.

 

We Have Lift Off

 

115.8 MPH is Like Really, Really Hard

Maximum exit velocity is one of a handful of small-sample data points that has a strong correlation to outcomes. Hitters capable of slugging a single ball over 110 MPH are far more likely to see positive offensive results than those who cannot. In this case, a single batted-ball event can tell us quite a bit.

Two years ago, Rob Arthur found that for every mile per hour over 108, we can add another six points to a hitter’s projected OPS. Robert had been projected for an OPS somewhere between a .765 (The BAT X) and .808 (Steamer). With Arthur’s formula, we can push Robert’s OPS to somewhere .812 and .855.  Keep that in mind as we try to recalculate Robert’s projected value. Whatever you thought Luis Robert was before the season, it turns out that he is probably more than that.

If you’re still feeling skeptical about the significance of a single batted-ball event, here are the players who hit a ball 115.8 MPH or harder in 2019.

Player Max Velo. wRC+
Giancarlo Stanton 120.6 139
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 118.9 105
Pete Alonso 118.3 143
Gary Sanchez 118.3 116
Aristides Aquino 118.3 119
Aaron Judge 118.1 141
Jose Abreu 117.9 117
Christian Yelich 117.9 174
Yordan Alvarez 117.9 178
Kyle Schwarber 117.6 120
Nelson Cruz 117.0 163
Mike Trout 116.6 180
Bryce Harper 116.4 125
Ketel Marte 116.3 150
Josh Bell 116.2 135
Avisail Garcia 116.2 112
Mike Zunino 116.1 45
Ronald Acuna Jr. 115.9 126
C.J. Cron 115.9 101
Fernando Tatis Jr. 115.9 150
Yoan Moncada 115.8 141

That’s a list of great players. It would be easy to dismiss the less appealing names on that list (Zunino, Cron, and Garcia), but those names are critical to clarifying the range of outcomes. Even then, if Robert does generate the same 112 wRC+ as Avisail Garcia, he will have outperformed his projections with the bat.

 

To Be Young and Fabulous

Like many stars, Robert has enjoyed ample success ahead of his age group. There is a direct correlation between a player’s debut age and his career success. Some of that is the result of accumulation, but it is also because advanced and more mature competition reveals a younger player’s true talent level.

At the age of 15, Robert broke into the Cuban National Series (Cuba’s premier professional league). At that time, he was 11 years younger than the league’s average player (26.7 years). By the time he was 17, he put up an OPS of .796. At 18 years old, that number soared to 1.213.

In Robert’s 2019 campaign, he was 2.7 years younger than his competition in the Double-A Southern League and 5.9 years younger than the average player in the Triple-A International League. During that stretch, Robert hit .306 with 24 home runs, 28 steals, and a wRC+ of 146. Given what we know about how older competition helps a younger player to advance his abilities, we should have expected this type of arrival in the majors.

After all, Robert’s talent and success led the White Sox to sign him for six years and $50 million because they thought it would save them money in the long run. The team has committed to playing him every day this year, and center field may as well have his name on it.

Since 2017, there have been eight players age 22 or younger who enjoyed a 135 wRC+ in Double-A or TripleA-A and then at least 450 plate appearances for their entire rookie season:

Name Age G R HR RBI SB AVG wRC+
Juan Soto 20 150 110 34 110 12 .282 142
Rafael Devers 22 156 129 32 115 8 .311 132
Ronald Acuna Jr. 21 156 127 41 101 37 .280 126
Gleyber Torres 22 144 96 38 90 5 .278 125
Ozzie Albies 22 160 102 24 86 15 .295 117
Eloy Jimenez 22 122 69 31 79 0 .267 116
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 20 123 52 15 69 0 .272 105
Victor Robles 22 155 86 17 65 28 .255 91

Fernando Tatis Jr. misses out here because he suffered an oblique injury last year. This list, combined with the list above, gives us context for Robert’s ability to be an immediate star.

Notably, Robert won’t have the entire season, which means that if opposing teams find some glaring weakness to expose, the Chicago wunderkind will have less time to adjust and rebound. As with all players, the range of outcomes is much greater this season, but that is especially pronounced with a player whose range is so dramatic.

The simple reality is that while fantasy sports owners are used to seeing rookie running backs explode onto the scene in fantasy football, most fantasy baseball owners are skeptical about the value of a rookie player. However, as the last few years have shown us, there are going to be absolute studs who arrive at the height of their powers.

 

Valuing a Hot Asset

Before the season, Robert’s work with the bat and his forecast nine steals were enough for him to be projected as the 22nd best outfielder and 77th most valuable player for this season.

While we don’t have a meaningful sample for Robert’s average exit velocity or his barrel rate, the velocity should still have benefits for Robert’s batting average (as well as his power). For a player with Robert’s speed, the ability to hit the ball with that kind of authority prevents fielders from playing too far in as they attempt to take away weak grounders. His speed prevents them from sitting back so they can reach hard grounders.

If we combine the speed and make modest improvements to Robert’s hitting projections, we’re left with a player who looks awfully similar to Fernando Tatis Jr. If we use the Depth Charts projections, Tatis Jr. projects as the 29th most valuable hitter and the 42nd most valuable player overall.

I’m arguing that we’ve undervalued Luis Robert. Using Arthur’s adjustment and applying the rates to the rest of Robert’s stats, we get something like this:

Player R HR RBI SB Average OPS
Luis Robert 29 10 31 9 .279 .818
Fernando Tatis Jr. 34 10 30 9 .275 .835

The extra opportunities on base may lead to more steals for Robert, but I haven’t added that in, even though the numbers would suggest another half steal (enough to round up). By my values, Tatis remains more valuable, but just barely. It looks like Robert’s new projection should make somewhere between the 40th to 50th most valuable player this season. That puts him somewhere between Fernando Tatis Jr. and Starling Marte.

If you own Robert, make sure you get fair value for him in a trade. If you’re looking to acquire him, it’s likely to be expensive. The reality is that most Robert owners are already enthusiasts, and they ought to be. However, there are always owners who want to get too cute and sell high when they don’t know the value of what they have. Don’t overpay, but if you need steals and a dynamic outfield bat, Luis Robert is likely to the cheapest asset in that third tier of outfielders ranging from Giancarlo Stanton to Eloy Gimenez.

In dynasty leagues, Robert is about to make the leap to being a top-20 player. We haven’t yet seen enough to push him ahead of young stars like Yoan Moncada and Pete Alonso, but it’s easy to see him there by the end of this season.

At this point, we can say with much greater confidence that the hype on Chicago’s phenom is more than justified. The L is now leaving the station.



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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 1

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

This week we're looking at a trio of promising right-handers, all under the age of 28. Sandy Alcantara lit up the Phillies on Opening Day, Brady Singer dazzled in his MLB debut, and Dylan Bundy looked sharp in his first start in an Angels' uniform.

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 7/26/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

 

Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins

63% rostered

2019 Stats: 197.1 IP, 3.88 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 8.3% K-BB%

07/24 @ PHI: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R (1 ER), 2 BB, 7 K

Alcantara was a surprise workhorse for Miami last year, putting up nearly 200 innings in 32 starts despite just having 6 MLB starts under his belt coming into 2019. His surface numbers look decent, but advanced stats have never been kind to Alcantara, as the young right-hander sports an ugly 5.21 SIERA and 1.77 K/BB ratio for his career. The lack of strikeouts, poor control, and awful team around him have made Alcantara an afterthought in the fantasy world, but at just 24 years old there may be room for growth here.

Alcantara’s defining pitch has always been his sinker, which makes him a relic of the past in today’s game. Sinkerballers are on their way out, but Alcantara has managed to hold batters to a .227 AVG, .121 ISO, and 62.2% groundball with the pitch throughout his career. Opposing hitters also mustered just an 83 MPH average exit velocity and a -1-degree average launch angle in 2019. There is some spice in this cheese too, as Alcantara averages between 95-96 MPH and has been known to touch 99-100 MPH when he’s really dialed in. Sinkerballers don’t put up the strikeout numbers we crave, but there’s no denying Alcantara’s sinker works as intended, and has helped him suppress home runs despite power surging around him.

While the sinker is clearly a good foundational pitch for Alcantara, he has a litany of question marks that have prevented him from taking the next step. One of his biggest issues has been poor control. Alcantara has a bloated 10.7% walk rate for his career, along with a 41.4% zone rate. He issued two free passes in this start against Philadelphia, but he did manage to throw 56 of his 87 pitches for strikes, which is nice to see from the sometimes wild hurler. Alcantara managed to do it with just a 35.6% zone rate in this start, and that’s because he got hitters to chase more often with his secondary pitches.

Alcantara’s five-pitch arsenal may look impressive on the surface, but this repertoire has always lacked a put-away pitch. Sure, Alcantara can lean on the sinker, like he often has, but he doesn’t have a pitch he can rely on for a punchout. Things looked a little differently in this start, as Alcantara notched 14 swinging strikes along with a 50% whiff rate on his slider and a 66.7% whiff rate with his changeup. Of course, these metrics are skewed by small sample size, but Alcantara still got plenty of hitters to chase at these pitches. He benefitted from an extra two inches of horizontal movement on his changeup and an extra half-inch of drop on his slider. The changeup is the pitch worth focusing on, because Alcantara made improvements with the pitch last season that coincided with better results (see below, source: brooksbaseball.net)

2019 Changeup Horizontal Movement (by month)

2019 Changeup Velocity (by month)

2019 Changeup Whiff Rate (by month)

2019 Changeup Batting Average Against (by month)

As he gained more movement and more velocity, the pitch performed better and (mostly) got more whiffs. Alcantara also improved his K/BB ratio in the second half to 2.38 along with a 4.47 FIP, which doesn’t sound  great, but is much better than where Alcantara has been throughout his career. If he could truly develop his changeup, and to a lesser extent, his slider, as reliable secondary pitches he could become more than a rotation filler. In a normal season I’d prefer a wait-and-see approach, but since we don’t have the luxury to wait Alcantara is a fine add where available, and usable in his next outing at Baltimore. There are a lot of strong lineups in the eastern region, so if there’s any time to use Alcantara it’d be in that matchup.

Verdict: Take a shot, but be wary of the kinks he still has to work out. I wouldn’t hesitate to drop him if he reverts back to bad habits.

 

Brady Singer, Kansas City Royals

24% rostered

2019 Stats (Double-A): 90.2 IP, 3.47 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 15.3% K-BB%

7/25 @ CLE: 5 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K

Singer, who was ranked as the Royals’ top pitching prospect and second-best overall prospect behind Bobby Witt Jr. coming into the season, was a surprise addition to Kansas City’s rotation. Injuries to Jakob Junis and Brad Keller along with complete lack of organizational depth forced the Royals’ hand in giving the young pitcher a shot, and in a shortened season they might as well see what they have in the 23-year-old ex-Florida Gator.

Singer has a four-pitch arsenal consisting of a two-seam, four-seam, slider, and changeup. The fastballs and slider are his bread-and-butter, and Singer racked up 14 swinging strikes between his fastball and slider in this one, including 10 just with the slider. The slider is really the make-or-break pitch with Singer, so let’s look at a pair of examples from the start below.

Late slider movement fools Franmil Reyes on one of Singer's best of the day

Singer caught far too much plate with this one, making it easy pickings for a hitter like Jose Ramirez

As you can see, Singer’s slider is more of a slurve, as it clocked in at around 84 MPH in this start and tends to have a looping motion, compared to the hard, sweeping slider that’s common across the league. Singer’s slurve coupled with his strong two-seam fastball not only give him good strikeout potential, as we saw in this outing, but should help him maintain a healthy groundball rate as well. Singer maintained a groundball rate of 49% or higher as a minor leaguer, and had a 2:1 GB:FB ratio in his start against Cleveland.

Strikeouts and groundballs are the golden combination for a pitcher, and add in the fact that Singer has maintained a walk rate under 7% throughout his minor league career and there’s a lot to like in this profile. It will be interesting to see whether Singer utilizes his changeup more often going forward, as he only threw two changeups this entire start despite Cleveland starting six lefties and/or switch-hitters against him. There was a lot of buzz around Signer’s changeup during the preseason, and it’s hard to imagine Singer relying on his slider 50% of the time all season. There were plenty of positives here, and if Singer can successfully incorporate his changeup he could carve out a permanent role for himself in this rotation even when Junis and Keller return.

Verdict: The slider-fastball combo looked dangerous in this one, and it leaves me impressed and excited to see more out of Singer. It’s worth monitoring his pitch mix, as his hyped-up, revitalized changeup could be the third piece that helps Singer stick around. He’s worth a speculative add in 12+ team leagues, and he is even startworthy in his next matchup against Detroit.

 

Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels

73% rostered

2019 Stats: 161.2 IP, 4.79 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 14.8% K-BB%

7/25 @ OAK: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K

Dylan Bundy has long been one of my favorite breakout candidates, but between injuries, gopheritis, and the incompetence of the Baltimore organization in developing pitchers had my predictions of stardom looking more and more foolish with each passing season. At 27 years old Bundy was an afterthought following the 2019 season, but an offseason trade to the Angels could be just what the doctor ordered for a post-hype breakout in Bundy.

Bundy has a deep five-pitch arsenal, consisting of a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, curveball, and slider. Anyone who’s followed Bundy knows that, despite the five pitches, he lives and dies by that slider. For his career, Bundy has held batters to a .167 AVG and .132 ISO, along with a monster 24.1% SwStr rate. Even at his worst, Bundy’s slider has been an elite pitch and was a big piece of his success in this start. He had a 26.67% whiff rate with the pitch, and threw it 30 times out of 90 pitches. Even with his tumultuous history, Bundy’s slider is a known commodity and a strong pitch that can maintain a solid strikeout rate by itself. What’s more intriguing about this start is Bundy’s changeup usage.

Bundy only threw 11 changeups in this start, but had a 27.27% whiff rate with the offspeed offering, which is over 9% higher than his career rate. Bundy made some improvements with his changeup last season by increasing vertical movement and making changes to his release point, and the results speak for themselves. Prior to 2019 batters had a .265 AVG, .258 ISO, and a 17.37% whiff rate against Bundy’s changeup. Since 2019 batters have a .250 AVG, .157 ISO, and 19% whiff rate, and in 2019 Bundy had a 28.7% chase rate with the pitch compared to 33% the year prior. These improvements should allow Bundy to reduce his home run rate, fare better against left-handed batters, and finally give him an effective secondary offering outside of his slider.

It’s hard to declare Bundy “fixed” after just one outing, but there’s a lot to like about what he did against Oakland in this one. The biggest concern remaining is the inconsistencies in Bundy’s fastball. It clocks in at just 91 MPH, and it’s clear at this point that he’ll never come close to the mid-to-high 90s he flashed as a prospect before he suffered serious shoulder and elbow injuries that sapped his velocity. He’s a high-risk, high-reward breakout candidate, and that’s a chance I’m usually willing to take in fantasy.

Verdict: Bundy has flirted with the next level for years, only to come crashing down. Still, his elite slider guarantees an above-average strikeout rate. Add in an improved changeup and a much-needed change of scenery and there might be something cooking here. Bundy is worth adding in all leagues, and if the Angels’ rotation stays intact his next two starts will come against the rebuilding Mariners.



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Young Blue Jays Lineup Set To Make Impact in 2020

In 2019, the Yankees and Marlins were tied for the youngest starting lineup in the Majors at 26.5 years of age. Heading into 2020, the average age of the Blue Jays' starting lineup in 25.5, with 30-year-old Travis Shaw projected to be their oldest starter.

There is such a great deal of variance on how productive this offense will be. Most of their hitters have such a small sample size to analyze that it’s hard to predict how they will perform. With that being said, if everything clicks for this young, exciting roster, the Jays could surprise a lot of people in a 60-game season.

Looking back at the Toronto’s 67-95 season in 2019, the team wasn’t exactly pushing for a playoff spot. This was due in large part to their atrocious starting pitching. Their 4.79 ERA ranked 21st, and their leader in innings pitched was Trent Thornton (6-9), who sported a 4.84 ERA in 154.1 IP.

 

Young Jays Ready to Fly

A healthy Matt Shoemaker and the addition of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chase Anderson, and Tanner Roark should help the Jays play with a lead a little more in 2020, thus allowing the batters to see more hitter-friendly pitches. But, the Jays pitching improvements is a story for another article; let’s get back to their electric lineup.

One through nine, this lineup has nothing if not immense power, especially if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can realize the 50-homer potential that he displayed during the 2019 Home Run Derby. There isn’t really a weak spot in the power department. (Derek Fisher would possibly be the exception, but he’s never really had the consistent playing time to prove himself.)

The team as a whole has to do better at putting balls in play; they finished ninth in home runs last season (247), but only 23rd in runs scored (726.) That’s because they were dead last in AVG (.236), striking out 24.9% of the time, sixth-highest amongst all teams in baseball. They’d be wise choke up on their bats a little more in 2020 to bring more players across home plate.

With that being said, they didn't play with their full squad of young studs for most of the season. Vlad played 123 games after being called up, Cavan Biggio played 100, Bo Bichette played 46, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was limited to 87 due to a combination of injury and demotion.

It’s a shame for the Jays that they won’t be able to play 81 games at the Rogers Centre, where balls fly out at a high clip. Last season, they left the yard to the tune of 1.317 per game, by far the most in the Majors.

Without further ado, in order of their projected lineup position, let’s take a closer look at seven of the young elite talents the Jays will hope bring them a post-season berth in 2020.

Projected Opening Day Lineup:

1. Bo Bichette

2. Cavan Biggio

3. Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

5. Travis Shaw

6. Randal Grichuk

7. Teoscar Hernandez

8. Derek Fisher

9. Danny Jansen

*The article doesn’t focus on the established 30-year old Shaw, veteran Randal Grichuk, who leads all Jays in service time (5.033), or Fisher, who is projected to hit eighth on Opening Day, but will likely find himself in and out of the lineup.

 

1. Bo Bichette

In 2019, the talk of Toronto media was Guerrero Jr. There was so much Vladdy that Bichette, the 14th-ranked prospect in baseball, slipped under the radar slightly until he was called up for the final two months of the season. When he finally came onto the scene, he absolutely exploded.

The 66th overall draft pick in 2016 got the call and proceeded to set two MLB records by hitting ten extra-base hits (XBAs) in his first nine games, and by doubling in nine consecutive games. In 46 games, he hit 11 HRs, a remarkable 18 doubles, swiped four bases, and had a .358 OBP.

At 6-foot and 185 lbs, Bichette doesn’t strike an imposing figure, but his .260 ISO and 42.9% Hard Hit rate according to Baseball Savant, shows that he can knock the stuffing out of the ball.

Looking at his batted ball data, what really stands out is Bichette's ability to spray the ball. In his limited at-bats, he led all shortstops in hitting into opposite field, doing so 30.6% of the time. By comparison, studs like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Alex Bregman went the opposite way 21.6% and 18.4% of the time, respectively.

Obviously regression is on the horizon for Bichette in 2020 as his K% was a 23.6% and his BB% was a career-low 6.6% last year; understandable coming up against big league pitching for the first time. Yet, he was still able to put up historic numbers for a rookie. This makes it challenging to project his production for the upcoming season.

The 22-year-old has an incredibly bright future, and if he can get on base, and into scoring position at anywhere close to the same rate as in 2019, he will score lots of runs and provide a ton of RBI opportunities for the other young studs hitting behind him.

 

2. Cavan Biggio

Another son of a former Major League legend, Biggio will try and build on his impressive 2019 season, hitting in the two-hole for Toronto. He didn’t quite have the pedigree or the hype of Bichette or Guerrero Jr., but he could be just as valuable to the big league squad. What really sets him apart is his eye at the plate.

Before getting promoted to The Show in 2019, the second baseman had a jaw-dropping 1.21 BB/K at Triple-A. At the Major League level, his BB% only dropped slightly; 19.5% to 16.5%, but his strikeout rate skyrocketed from 16.1% to 28.6%. In fact, in 2017 in Class A Advanced he had a 25.2 K%, and in 2018 at Double-A it was 26.3%. Biggio has got to find a way to bring that down.

The reason he is able to get away with the strikeouts, for now, is his aforementioned walk rate. His 16.5 BB% was seventh in all of baseball and allowed the left-handed hitter to have a strong .364 OBP even with a .234 AVG. Oddly enough, he actually hit better against lefties (.237) than against righties (.233).

Part of the reason Biggio’s average underwhelms is because he seemingly tries to put the ball in the air every time he’s at the dish. Even to a casual fan, his swing seems to look like he’s trying to uppercut the ball.

In 2019, he had a 47% flyball rate, yet only had a 3.7% IFFB; in fact, he has never had a FB rate under 41% at any level. In terms of power, 16 HRs was a respectable total over 100 games, including 13 of those dingers coming off fastballs.

Another potential obstacle to Biggio increasing his average is how much he pulls the ball. He pulled the ball 49.4% of the time last season, that’s seventh amongst second basemen with at least 100 PAs, and puts him in really unflattering company.

Due to Biggio's propensity to hit the ball near the first-base line, he faces a defensive shift in 75% of his ABs. Because his strikeout rate is so high, and his groundball rate is relatively low (25.4%), his numbers don’t differ much from when he is not facing the shift.

Even with his aforementioned flaws, Biggio figures to be a big part of the Jays' future for many years to come. It’s already been mentioned how he was seemingly the only base-stealing threat on the Jays last season, and was one of only six MLB players to hit for the cycle in 2019. Clearly, the future is bright for the 25-year-old.

 

3. Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Out of all the young Blue Jays bats being analyzed here, Gurriel has the largest variance in potential outcomes. Projected to hit in the three-hole, it wouldn’t be surprising if the brother of Astros slugger Yuli Gurriel had a breakout season. Conversely, there’s also the possibility he has another underwhelming, injury-riddled campaign.

Gurriel will start the season hitting in arguably the cushiest spot in the Blue Jays' lineup. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs behind Bichette and Biggio. In such a short season, the Cuban native will definitely need to come out the gates faster than last season.

In 2019, Gurriel hit .175 with no HRs and 12 Ks in his first 13 games, earning him a demotion to Triple-A. He was recalled a month later and moved to the outfield, where he’ll be playing in 2020.

After being recalled in late May, he proceeded to swing a red-hot bat throughout June, hitting .337 with a 1.063 OPS, earning him 10 HRs and 20 RBIs in 104 ABs.

Overall, Gurriel has had 563 Major League ABs and looks like a real threat. In 2018, he excelled at hitting fastballs and struggled against breaking balls; in '19, it was the exact opposite. In '18, he hit much better on the road and in night games, whereas in '19 he hit much better at home and had a 1.049 OPS in day games. Clearly Gurriel is a streaky player in terms of both how and when he collects his hits.

No matter how the production comes, if the left fielder can replicate the .327 OBP, .869 OPS, and .264 ISO he contributed last season, the Jays will have an above-average top of the order in 2020.

 

4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

All the praise heaped on Bichette for his brief spell in 2019 was thoroughly deserved, however, the Blue Jays will only go as far as Guerrero will take them.

Entering last season, Guerrero ranked 3rd on the MLB Top 100 list and his 1.141 OPS during his 34 Triple-A games certainly showed why. He gave the Jays no choice but to call him up, but ultimately, he didn’t quite deliver on his lofty expectations. He struck out 17.7% of the time, while only swatting 15 HRs.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Dominican Republic native will want to show more power in the upcoming season and improve on his .162 ISO, 38.1% Hard Hit rate, and 49.6% groundball rate from 2019.

Even after a disappointing rookie season, no one is doubting that Guerrero is the real deal. Just look at what he did in the Home Run Derby at just 21 years old. His power profile clearly translates to real game action, as his 118.9 MPH EV single was the hardest-hit ball in the Majors last season.

An important note is that a big reason for Guerrero's underwhelming production is because he is already being treated like one of the game’s best by opposing pitchers. Only seven qualifying hitters saw a fewer percent of pitches in the zone in 2019, (37.8%). Out of the All-Stars ahead of him, Vlad had the highest zone contact rate at 87.2%. If all of the Jays' young players can take an expected step forward in 2020, Guerrero should see a lot more pitches in the zone and therefore see all his batting numbers and peripherals shoot up.

It would be a surprise if this highly touted prospect didn’t take a big step forward in 2020, unfortunately, he’ll only have 60 games to show what he’s truly capable of.

 

7. Teoscar Hernandez

At 27 years old, Hernandez is almost at the “he is what he is” moment of his career, and what he is definitely isn’t going to set the world on fire.

His OBP the last four seasons between Houston and Toronto have been, .304, .305, .302, .306, respectively. Granted, he only played a combined 68 games his first two seasons, but the lack of improvement is cause for concern regardless. His low OBP is a direct result of his high strikeout rate. In his two seasons as a full-time starter, he struck out 32.1% of the time.

While his power is an asset for the team, it isn’t enough to make up for his deficiencies in batting average. Maybe by hitting in the seven spot with improved talent around him, he will feel less pressure and have his best season yet, but that’s no guarantee.

Last season, the Dominican Republic native hit in literally every spot in the lineup. He registered the most ABs (101) hitting fifth, where he hit a woeful .188, and struck out 34.9% of the time. In high leverage situations, he was almost a liability, posting a .264 OBP and 39.6K%. Hopefully, moving him down two spots should reduce those high leverage plays and leave it to someone more adept at putting the ball in play.

Based on the analytics, Hernandez should be more productive. Baseball Savant places him in the top 94th percentile in sprint speed, yet he only amassed six stolen bases last season and was caught stealing three times.

Last season’s .778 OPS was respectable, but imagine if Hernandez had even league average plate discipline. Last season he hit .178 on breaking balls, striking out a staggering 60 times in 152 ABs.

If Hernandez can improve slightly, it would be a huge bonus for this ascending Jays lineup, but he hardly has the All-Star breakout potential of the other Jays up-and-comers.

 

9. Danny Jansen / Reese McGuire

The Blue Jays are simply going to need more from their catchers in 2020. Luke Maile and his tragic .151/.205/.235 slash line are gone after playing 44 games last season. Now the load will fall squarely on the capable shoulders of the tandem of Jansen and McGuire.

Earlier in the year, Jays manager Charlie Montoyo indicated that it would be about a 60/40 split in playing time in favor of Jansen.

Back when Jansen was promoted to the big leagues in 2018, many fantasy owners rushed to the waiver wire to pick him up. There was a lot of hype surrounding the fifth-best catching prospect entering the season. He was solid in 31 games, showing his trademark good eye at the plate (.247/.347/.432).

Then, instead of turning into one of the league’s top tier catchers as some predicted, he regressed across the board in 2019 (207/.279/.360.) It seemed like Jansen was selling out for power a little bit too much. According to Fangraphs, his Hard Hit rate jumped from 20% to 42.6% (12th amongst catchers.) However, as a result, he struck out more and walked less than in his small sample size in '18. His zone swing %, chase %, and first pitch swing rate all went up, while his zone contact rate declined.

Blue Jays fans will be hoping that Jansen was just unlucky -- the stats do support that theory to a degree. Between 2018 and '19, his xBA went from .230 to .242, and his xSLG increased slightly from .407 to .413.

Jansen hit only .199 against righties last season; if McGuire can take some of those ABs and have Jansen punish lefties a bit more, his overall numbers should improve.

Speaking of McGuire, don’t sleep on the impact that he could have in this lineup. The lefty isn’t a household name, but he certainly has an elite pedigree. He was drafted 14th overall by the Pirates in 2013, then after taking a few years to develop, he was listed as the sixth-best catching prospect in the Majors heading into '17. He blossomed last season, hitting an impressive .299/.346/.526 in 105 PA, posting a .316 AVG against righties.

It will be a major boost for the Blue Jays if McGuire can repeat his form from last season. Couple that with an improved Jansen and the Blue Jays can make some noise in this upcoming shortened season.

Baseball Prospectus currently gives the Toronto Blue Jays a mere 10.3% chance to make the playoffs. However, if all these young stars can start to flash their future All-Star potential, combined with a bit of luck, they may just make that division more exciting than people think.




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2020 Fantasy Baseball Advice 2020 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers 2020 Fantasy Baseball Undervalued Draft Targets Editor Note Featured Baseball #2 MLB Analysis RotoBaller - All Fantasy Sports Articles

Sauceda's Slants: Finding POWA in the Infield

We recently introduced our new hitter metric, POWA (which stands for Prediction of wOBA Attempt), to more appropriately align and weight new Statcast metrics to better predict future performance.

You can read the introductory piece for the full details and a 2019 POWA leaderboard, but the gist of it is:

  • POWA is nearly 10% more predictive of future wOBA than expected wOBA (xwOBA)
  • POWA is more than two times stickier season-to-season than wOBA
  • The weightings were determined based on optimizing predictiveness to next season’s (“season n+1”) wOBA:
    • Plate Discipline — 47%
      • Strikeout Rate (K%) — 27%
      • Walk Rate (BB%) — 20%
    • Contact Quality — 53%
      • Average Exit Velocity — 15%
      • Barrels per Batted Ball Event — 14%
      • % of Batted Balls Hit 95+ MPH — 10%
      • Maximum Exit Velocity — 6%
      • % of Batted Balls Poorly Topped — 5%
      • Average Distance — 3%

 

Explanation

POWA Index: Intro | Infielders | Outfielders

In the introductory piece, we saw names like Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge and Juan Soto fill the top 1% of the POWA leaderboard. We certainly didn’t need a new metric to tell us that those guys are elite hitters. But we also saw some fun surprises, like Dodgers’ prospect Edwin Rios in the 99th percentile! (Even if only a tiny 56 PA sample.)

And that’s the fun of something like POWA — identifying less celebrated hitters who possess outstanding raw skills, whom the market isn’t pricing at a premium. Maybe, just maybe, they’re poised to deliver outsized Fantasy value.

To identify who that might be, let’s adapt an idea from FanGraphs’ Mike Podhorzer and build an entire hitting lineup comprised of only late gems. To do so, we’ll use the following rubric:

  • ADP after pick 300 (equates to < ~$2 cost in auctions), based on the latest “Sprint — Main Event” NFBC ADP (7/10-7/20, n = 14 drafts)
  • Top 25% by POWA in 2019
  • Projected ATC OPS of at least .700 — research by Jeff Zimmerman found that hitters projected for an OPS below .650-.700 were at greater risk for losing playing time and/or being sent down to the minors (“sucking risk”)
  • NFBC Rules: 14 hitters — 2 C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, CI, MI, 5 OF, UT

Admittedly, this exercise is slightly more tailored to round out rosters in deeper formats — 50-round draft and holds, “only” leagues and deeper mixed leagues. For those in shallower formats, some of these hitters may make nice endgame selections but others may be best served as early “watch list” candidates. To combat this, in select cases where applicable, I’ve listed POWA-friendly hitters as “Just Missed — Too Expensive.” While their current sub-300 ADP precludes them from this list, they’re still going late (well after pick 200) and showing tasty, top-third POWA skills.

Having said that, before we feel that we’re digging too deep here, it’s worth reminding ourselves that you could have built a pretty reputable squad choosing only players that went after pick 300 last season (and probably every season)! And as our esteemed colleague, Ariel Cohen, pointed out on a recent “Beat The Shift” podcast, the shorter season will create conditions for more variable seasons — there’s less time for proven studs to differentiate themselves and so perhaps we see more unexpected “spike” seasons from later picks like some of those on this list.

Who that might be, though? Let’s build our POWA lineup to find out! Applying the criteria above leaves us with a pool of 35 hitters — here are my favorites, starting today with infielders. Outfielders will come next in a separate piece.

(STATISTICAL NOTE: All indexed stats referenced below are calculated from Baseball Savant data, where 100 equals league average and higher is better, except for strikeout rate and poorly topped percentage, where lower is better. Indexed figures are based on all players with at least 30 PA in 2019. Percentages indicate that metric’s POWA weighting — e.g., 27% weighting for strikeout rate. Unless otherwise indicated, projections are from ATC’s full-season late-March iteration, which rated as the best projection system from 2019. Much of the injury information was initially gathered from Derek Rhoads’ awesome injury dashboard tool. Park factors are from ESPN. Where possible, hitters are sorted by their POWA percentile.)

 

C - Kurt Suzuki, Washington Nationals - 70th POWA Percentile

354 ADP

27% 20% 15% 14% 10% 6% 5% 3%
K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
49 79 98 92 90 98 68 109

Okay, catcher is going to be different. I know my two selections don’t perfectly match the criteria above, but catcher can be rough, and they were too close not to include. In the case of Suzuki, he’s just outside the top 25% by POWA. Oh well, for our intents and purposes, he belongs here.

Here’s why I included him:

Suzuki’s end-of-season rank among catchers the last three seasons: 12th, 8th, 10th

His PA totals in those seasons: 309, 388, 309

ATC is currently projecting him for 331 PA and to finish as the 11th best catcher. He’s currently being drafted as the 22nd catcher.

You’re not going to win your league by rostering Suzuki, but if you’re paying down at catcher, he’s a great endgame target likely to deliver surplus value and a stat line that won’t hurt your team — nothing to sneeze at from a catcher.

Now 36 years old, maybe this is the season it all falls apart. Nationals manager Dave Martinez has already named Yan Gomes the primary catcher, estimating Suzuki will play 40% of the time. Maybe that’s enough to keep him below 300 PA for the first time in three seasons, a stretch where he’s ranked 6th among catchers by wRC+ and has been at least 5% better than league average with the bat in every season.

Even so, Steamer projects Suzuki to finish 16th among catchers despite the lowest full-season PA projection (265) of any system hosted on FanGraphs. While you’re unlikely to get much more than the full-season equivalent of 300 PA, they will be of good quality. Suzuki’s approach at the plate may be the perfect representation of his solid, if unspectacular profile — with his superb strikeout rate (11.7% in 2019) and ability to avoid poorly hit balls, he presents a nice floor to solidify your catcher situation late.

 

C - Jason Castro, Los Angeles Angels

88th POWA Percentile
355 ADP

27% 20% 15% 14% 10% 6% 5% 3%
K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
133 146 104 244 131 101 77 120

Castro would have qualified for this list if it weren’t for his projected OPS of .697 from ATC. (What’s going on here, Ariel?!) I promise I’ll stick closer to the criteria for the rest of this list, but Castro was hard to ignore.

He’s produced at least 1.6 FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) in six of the last seven seasons and after signing a one-year deal worth $6.9M this offseason, he’ll enjoy the majority of playing time at catcher for the Angels, with Max Stassi (18th percentile by POWA) and Anthony Bemboom (1st percentile) unlikely to push him for playing time beyond the backup role.

While the strikeout rate is well below average, his walk rate was 46% above average and he slayed baseballs last season. Among those with at least 150 batted ball events, Castro ranked 6th in barrels per batted ball event (Barrels/BBE) — 144% better than league average! — and 11th in barrels per plate appearance (Barrels/PA).

A career .231 hitter who strikes out more than 30% of the time, you should expect a poor batting average but as the 23rd catcher drafted, he represents one of your last chances to grab a quality, everyday option.

Just Missed — Too Expensive: Carson Kelly (86th POWA Percentile, 239 ADP), Travis d’Arnaud (76th, 273)

Honorable Mentions: Victor Caratini (78th, 385), Stephen Vogt (74th, 446)

 

1B - Justin Smoak, Milwaukee Brewers

97th POWA Percentile
352 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
88 192 103 156 111 101 80 119

Smoak does essentially everything you’d want in a hitter. Look at all the “green” (or numbers substantially above league average) from his 2019! His strikeout rate was 12% better than league average. His walk rate was 92% better, good for top 3% in the league! While his average exit velocities were roughly average, his barrel rates were excellent — at least 50% better than average. Perhaps it’s his ability to work the count that’s putting him in a good position to crush baseballs — he led the league in percentage of pitches seen while ahead in the count. His 2017 showed his upside, a season where he finished as a top 50 hitter and earned over $18 for Fantasy managers.

Why was his 2019 stat line — .208/.342/.406 and a 101 wRC+ in 500 PA — so uninspiring then? And why, aside from 2017, are we often left feeling that the whole is less than the sum of the parts with Smoak?

For starters, it seems like bad luck was at least partially a factor last season — among hitters with at least 500 PA, Smoak’s .223 BABIP ranked 2nd worst across MLB. Smoak’s expected stats, which are based on the exit velocities and launch angles of his batted balls, suggest his batting average (.250 xBA) and slugging percentage (.495 xSLG) should have been roughly 40-100 points higher. Even with 2019’s career low factored in, his career BABIP is .266 — whatever the case, .223 seems punitive.

That said, his sprint speed ranked in the 1st percentile and his 42.7% flyball rate ranked in the top 25 — a good recipe for power, sure, but not great for turning more batted balls into hits. His at-bats from the left side (he’s a switch hitter) were shifted over 90% of the time, but the results of those shifts have been historically uneven for him.

Moving from Toronto to Milwaukee, Smoak should benefit from a better run environment, both in terms of the ballpark and lineup around him. With a career 110 wRC+ against righties (92 wRC+ against lefties), he’ll likely hold the strong side of the platoon at first base to start the season, but will have to perform with Avisail Garcia and Ryan Braun also on the roster and needing at-bats.

He dealt with a stiff neck early last season and an injured quadriceps in June sent him to the injured list (IL), and he never seemed to recover at the plate. Now, particularly at 33, there’s no guarantee that he’ll bounce back. His hold on playing time appears firm for now, but after signing a modest 1-year $5M deal (with a 2021 team option), he may not have the luxury of a slow start. Still, even if it was only once (2017), he’s demonstrated a ceiling worth chasing. The skills are in place, and the price is right.

 

2B - Robinson Cano, New York Mets

78th POWA Percentile
351 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
68 72 103 105 130 102 119 94

After the Mets traded Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn (among others) to acquire Cano and Edwin Diaz — and get off Jay Bruce’s contract — Cano promptly turned in the second worst season of his career by wRC+ (93) and his worst since 2008 (86) when he was with the Yankees. (LOL Mets … sorry Mets fans.) He’d mostly been an iron man throughout his career with both the Yankees and Mariners, until 2018 when he was hit by a pitch and broke his right hand, and then was subsequently suspended two days later for testing positive for a banned substance.

Prior to that point, and even when he returned, performance wasn’t really a question — it was a relatively small 348 PA sample, but he was pretty good!

Cano’s 2018 (600-PA pace): 17 HR, 76 Runs, 86 RBI, .303/.374/.471 and 135 wRC+

Last season, his first with the Mets, both health and performance became a question. He battled lower body injuries — both to his left quad and hamstring — and finished the season with a .256/.307/.428 slash line in just 423 PA.

Now 37, this all could unravel quickly. Bounce backs are tough bets, particularly at his age. When you add the dark cloud of a substance abuse suspension, your mind really starts to wonder — all fair points.

But he’s still just two seasons removed from nearly finishing as a top 10 Fantasy second baseman. And he was 35% above average with the bat in a shortened 2018, including a 130 wRC+ when he returned from injury and suspension that season. Both his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction last season, but he’s never been a plus walker and his strikeout rate was still 30% better than league average.

His exit velocities fell from 2018 but were in line with his 2015-2017 figures and still above average, particularly his ability to hit balls greater than 95 MPH. His expected stats indicate a hint of poor luck, as both his expected batting average (.280 xBA) and slugging percentage (.450 xSLG) were nearly 25 points higher than his actual figures.

ATC projects Cano to finish as the 32nd second baseman — that won’t get you out of bed in the morning, but it’s also based on just 501 PA. If he can use this extended offseason to get healthy and rested, and put together close to a full season, he should be able to deliver nice value to your middle infield.

For better or worse, he’s likely to play every day, or as often as he can handle, and hit in the middle of a frisky Mets lineup. Combined with Cano’s track record and skills — age be damned — it’s difficult to find that elsewhere at this point in drafts.

 

SS - Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves

79th POWA Percentile
228 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
95 114 102 143 117 99 84 108

I know he’s going well before pick 300, but despite the enviable depth at shortstop this season, Swanson is the only SS-eligible player currently going after pick 200 that meets our criteria!

The former first overall pick back in 2015, Swanson forced his way to the top of the lineup last season (hitting second) before an injury to his right heel knocked him out of the lineup for the next month. Before the injury, he’d been on a tidy 600-PA pace:

.265/.330/.468, 24 HR, 89 Runs, 79 RBI, 10 SB

Of course, that was while hitting second for many of his plate appearances. He’ll have to hit his way back to the top half of the lineup, but even if he does, barring injury, it’s hard to foresee him supplanting Acuna, Albies, Freeman or Ozuna in the top four.

Still, some of the changes behind Swanson’s mini-breakout suggest promise if he can stay healthy — he improved his plate discipline, worked himself into better counts and punished pitches, particularly fastballs, in those counts.

He does nearly everything at least a little above average: both his strikeout and walk rates are above average and although his average exit velocities are nothing special, he can really sting the ball — both his barrel rate and percentage of balls hit greater than 95 MPH were top five among shortstops. (He also doesn’t hit poorly topped balls very often.)

Add in a dash of luck — Swanson’s expected batting average (.271 xBA) and slugging percentage (.480 xSLG) were approximately 20 and 60 points higher, respectively, than his actual figures — and you have a compelling recipe for a full season breakout.

 

3B - Maikel Franco, Kansas City Royals

84th POWA Percentile
402 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
59 102 101 98 107 104 109 95

Franco’s 2015 debut as a 22-year-old — a .280/.343/.497 slash line, good for a 129 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR in 335 PA — gave us just enough of a “taste” to keep chasing a full season repeat. It never came. He’s been a league average bat only once since then (a 105 wRC+ in 2018) and otherwise well below average: 92 (2016), 76 (2017), 70 (2019).

There’s really no way to sugarcoat it: he just hasn’t been good. After being sent down to Triple-A at one point last season, it wasn’t much of a surprise when the Phillies non-tendered him this offseason. He’s since signed a one-year, $2.95M deal with the Royals, presumably to start at third base. The Royals were one of the worst five teams in baseball last season and they don’t project to be demonstrably better this season, so Franco’s job is likely relatively safe.

The opportunity is likely to be there, but Franco is moving from a passable lineup to a bad one. Worse, he’s expected to start low in the batting order. While Kauffman Stadium has been a sneaky-good run environment, it’s one of the worst parks for homers — certainly much worse than Citizens Bank Park. That’s not a great formula for a hitter who needs to hit for power to provide Fantasy value, although perhaps the move could be a good buoy for Franco’s batting average.

After all, his skills portend a quality batting average. Among hitters with at least 400 PA last season, Franco strikeout rate was in the top 30. Among those 30, his isolated power (ISO) ranked 13th. It’s a bit of a unique combination of low strikeouts and power. He paired that with a roughly league average walk rate, drawing walks at a career-best 8.4% clip.

He also raised his launch angle to a career-high 14.9 degrees. It didn’t result in more power — instead, his popup rate spiked to nearly 15% — but it was a noteworthy development for someone who had previously hit groundballs closer in line with that of a slap hitter than a power hitter. Despite the broad frame, he won’t dominate Statcast exit velocity leaderboards, although he’s at least league average in that regard.

Franco is an interesting case. How often do you see 22-year-olds produce in the majors as 29% better than league average, only to be non-tendered a few years later? He’s still just 27, tweaking and improving under the hood. Could he go the way of new teammate, Hunter Dozier, and have a 27-year-old mini-breakout? It’s an interesting question that might be worth finding an answer to at this point in drafts.

Just Missed — Too Expensive: Yandy Diaz (93rd, 273), Brian Anderson (80th, 225)

Honorable Mentions: Rake Jake Lamb (89th, 409), Brad Miller (85th, 659 in March “Draft Champions” drafts), Kyle Seager (83rd, 327), Asdrubal Cabrera (76th, 424)

 

CI - Daniel Vogelbach, Seattle Mariners

93rd POWA Percentile
440 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
111 200 101 153 106 103 73 118

*Scroll up to Smoak, Justin*

Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V.

You really almost could!

Keen eye? Walk rate in the top 2% of the league; second in the league — behind only Smoak! — in percentage of pitches seen while ahead in the count. Check!

Prodigious power? 80th percentile in barrels per batted ball event rate. Check!

Slow as molasses? 3rd percentile sprint speed. Check!

Where Vogelbach diverges is also what lowers his batting average ceiling relative to Smoak.

First, he’s got more swing and miss in his game, with a strikeout rate that’s 11% worse than league average. Second, he was slightly more extreme in his flyball-heavy approach, ranking 11th in flyball rate (44.8%) among hitters with at least 500 PA. Third, it could be noisy in a one-season sample, but he was much more negatively impacted by the shift — he was shifted on 67% of his PA and his wOBA when shifted was more than 25 points lower than when not shifted. Lastly, hitting only from the left side, Vogelbach has much more of a pronounced platoon split, with a 129 wRC+ against righties (530 career PA) but only a 56 wRC+ against lefties (174 career PA).

Worse, Vogelbach has less of a track record in the majors, and arguably a less secure playing time situation. He also really struggled in the second half of last season — after hitting a 126 wRC+ in the first half, his strikeout and walk rates both cratered and Vogelbach struggled to a 68 wRC+ in the second half.

Still, there’s quite a bit to like with his profile! To start, I think a shorter season might benefit him. While there was a chance the Mariners’ young hitting talent — namely Jarred Kelenic and maybe Julio Rodriguez — might have forced their way to the big-league roster with a full season to do so. With a shorter season, I think the Mariners front office will be more inclined to chock it up to a lost year and avoid starting their service clocks.

With Evan White locked in at first base, Vogelbach's only real path to everyday at-bats is at DH. He should be able to lock that down — Steamer projects him has the M’s best hitter by wRC+ and tied for 8th in fWAR among all Mariners — but some questions remain: first, can he correct whatever bothered him in the second half last season? Second, can he force his way to face lefties and thus more plate appearances?

Even with his struggles last season, he still finished with 1.6 fWAR and as 11% better than league average with the bat. Also, let’s not forget that this was his first extended chance in the majors — he mashed in the minors, finishing with 60 home runs in 1,488 PA in Triple-A alone, and never below a 122 wRC+. With a full year of major league plate appearances under his belt, it’s not farfetched to think he can adjust. In spring, he talked about his offseason focus being improving “dominating” against lefties. There’s a good player in here with compelling skills, and the cost to acquire him for your Fantasy team is absurdly low.

Just Missed — Too Expensive: CJ Cron (86th, 199), Joey Votto (85th, 271), Renato Nunez (78th, 280)

Honorable Mentions: Edwin Rios (99th, 442), Mike Ford (95th, 577 in March “Draft Champions” drafts), Ji-Man Choi (93rd, 437), Mitch Moreland (89th, 450), Ryan Zimmerman (82nd, 651 in March “Draft Champions” drafts), Jesus Aguilar (82nd, 369), Miguel Cabrera (80th, 318), Matt Beaty (80th, 449), Eric Thames (76th, 309)

 

MI - Howie Kendrick, Washington Nationals

95th POWA Percentile
240 ADP (up from 353 ADP in March “Draft Champions” Drafts)

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
55 89 104 162 136 103 93 102

Howie chose his age-36 season to generate the most Fantasy dollars he’s earned since he was a Dodger in 2014. If he were likely to secure more bankable playing time, he might have grabbed the 2B slot on this list ahead of Cano. While that didn’t stop him last season — he finished as a top 15 Fantasy second baseman and generated 2.9 fWAR in just 370 PA — it’s probably the prudent approach not to buy the repeat of such an outlier season.

Despite the loss of Rendon, Washington has a crowded depth chart and an excellent projected bench of Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael A. Taylor. If Carter Kieboom wins the opening day third base job, all those guys will be battling for fill-in plate appearances behind starters. That said, if the condensed season sprint drives more bench utilization, then Kendrick might have a clearer path to more plate appearances than he would relative to a typical season.

With an elite strikeout rate and top 20% barrel rate, Kendrick should provide a nice mix of plus batting average — he hit .344 last season and he’s hit .322 in 708 PA since joining the Nationals in 2017 — and passable power across two positions (1B/2B).

He’ll turn 37 this season and while his skillset has aged well thus far, it’s fair to wonder at what point things might degrade quickly. Still, Steamer has him projected for the second-best wRC+ on the team and, like in real baseball, he should be a solid fill-in for Fantasy teams — particularly in deeper daily leagues or leagues where you’re not forced to commit to a starting lineup for a full week. I prefer to shoot for more upside with my later picks, and I’d like to see Kendrick’s price fall a bit more before grabbing him, but if you’re looking for late batting average help eligible at both MI and CI, Howie might be your guy.

 

Honorable Mentions

  • Aledmys Diaz (86th, 564 in March “Draft Champions” drafts)
  • Brian Dozier (79th, 595 in March “Draft Champions” drafts)

 

Stay tuned for the upcoming piece about outfielders and more…

Make sure to poke around the full leaderboard on RotoBaller to see what other late gems you can find — let me know on Twitter (@RotoPope) if there are some standout options that I missed!



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Sauceda's Slants: More POWA to your Outfield

We recently introduced our new hitter metric, POWA (which stands for Prediction of wOBA Attempt), to more appropriately align and weight new Statcast metrics to better predict future performance.

You can read the introductory piece for the full details and a 2019 POWA leaderboard, but the gist of it is:

  • POWA is nearly 10% more predictive of future wOBA than expected wOBA (xwOBA)
  • POWA is more than two times stickier season-to-season than wOBA
  • The weightings were determined based on optimizing predictiveness to next season’s (“season n+1”) wOBA:
    • Plate Discipline — 47%
      • Strikeout Rate (K%) — 27%
      • Walk Rate (BB%) — 20%
    • Contact Quality — 53%
      • Average Exit Velocity — 15%
      • Barrels per Batted Ball Event — 14%
      • % of Batted Balls Hit 95+ MPH — 10%
      • Maximum Exit Velocity — 6%
      • % of Batted Balls Poorly Topped — 5%
      • Average Distance — 3%

 

Explanation

POWA Index: Intro | Infielders | Outfielders

In the introductory piece, we saw names like Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge and Juan Soto fill the top 1% of the POWA leaderboard. We certainly didn’t need a new metric to tell us that those guys are elite hitters. But we also saw some fun surprises, like Dodgers’ prospect Edwin Rios in the 99th percentile! (Even if only a tiny 56 PA sample.)

And that’s the fun of something like POWA — identifying less celebrated hitters who possess outstanding raw skills, whom the market isn’t pricing at a premium. Maybe, just maybe, they’re poised to deliver outsized Fantasy value.

To identify who that might be, let’s adapt an idea from FanGraphs’ Mike Podhorzer and build an entire hitting lineup comprised of only late gems. To do so, we’ll use the following rubric:

  • ADP after pick 300 (equates to < ~$2 cost in auctions), based on the latest “Sprint — Main Event” NFBC ADP (7/10-7/20, n = 14 drafts)
  • Top 25% by POWA in 2019
  • Projected ATC OPS of at least .700 — research by Jeff Zimmerman found that hitters projected for an OPS below .650-.700 were at greater risk for losing playing time and/or being sent down to the minors (“sucking risk”)
  • NFBC Rules: 14 hitters — 2 C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, CI, MI, 5 OF, UT

Admittedly, this exercise is slightly more tailored to round out rosters in deeper formats — 50-round draft and holds, “only” leagues and deeper mixed leagues. For those in shallower formats, some of these hitters may make nice endgame selections but others may be best served as early “watch list” candidates. To combat this, in select cases where applicable, I’ve listed POWA-friendly hitters as “Just Missed — Too Expensive.” While their current sub-300 ADP precludes them from this list, they’re still going late (well after pick 200) and showing tasty, top-third POWA skills.

Having said that, before we feel that we’re digging too deep here, it’s worth reminding ourselves that you could have built a pretty reputable squad choosing only players that went after pick 300 last season (and probably every season)! And as our esteemed colleague, Ariel Cohen, pointed out on a recent “Beat The Shift” podcast, the shorter season will create conditions for more variable seasons — there’s less time for proven studs to differentiate themselves and so perhaps we see more unexpected “spike” seasons from later picks like some of those on this list.

Who that might be, though? Let’s build our POWA lineup to find out! Applying the criteria above leaves us with a pool of 35 hitters — here are my favorites, continuing from infielders and now onto outfielders and a utility player.

(STATISTICAL NOTE: All indexed stats referenced below are calculated from Baseball Savant data, where 100 equals league average and higher is better, except for strikeout rate and poorly topped percentage, where lower is better. Indexed figures are based on all players with at least 30 PA in 2019. Percentages indicate that metric’s POWA weighting — e.g., 27% weighting for strikeout rate. Unless otherwise indicated, projections are from ATC’s full-season late-March iteration, which rated as the best projection system from 2019. Much of the injury information was initially gathered from Derek Rhoads’ awesome injury dashboard tool. Park factors are from ESPN. Where possible, hitters are sorted by their POWA percentile.)

 

Jordan Luplow, Cleveland Indians

85th POWA Percentile
571 ADP (in March “Draft Champions” drafts)

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
97 153 102 172 109 99 96 108

Luplow absolutely mashes lefties, sporting a .276/.385/.635 slash line and 162 wRC+ against them across 226 career PA. In the same sample, he’s been equally bad against righties with a .207/.276/.320 slash line and 57 wRC+. It’s fair to wonder if Cleveland’s selective usage of him last season, primarily deployed against lefties, has artificially boosted his POWA ranking.

Still, the skills are compelling. He pairs above-average plate discipline — including last season, when his walk rate was 53% better than league average, and throughout the minors — with an 87th percentile barrel rate. He also possesses 77th percentile sprint speed and could sneakily chip in 6-10 stolen bases given a full season’s work.

The success of this pick will largely come down to Luplow’s ability to hit righties and secure an everyday job. According to beat writer Zack Meisel of The Athletic, Cleveland “wants to know if [Luplow] can hit righties.” When you consider Luplow’s success last season — he was 37% better than league average with the bat and produced 2.2 fWAR, good for fifth on the team despite only 261 PA — and the other healthy OF options on the roster (Greg Allen, Delino DeShields, Jake Bauers and Bradley Zimmer), it’s hard to envision a scenario where Luplow isn’t given a chance to hit right-handed pitching.

The dearth of quality alternatives may be his best shot to everyday at-bats, but the potential return of Tyler Naquin — the only alternate option currently on the roster who’s delivered at least a 100 wRC+ in the majors — from a torn ACL represents his biggest obstacle.

As Meisel said, “If he can [hit righties], then you have an everyday outfielder that should be above average at the plate — but you don’t know until it happens.” At this price, with these skills and the lack of alternatives, it might just be worth finding out.

 

Brandon Nimmo, New York Mets

83rd POWA Percentile
322 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
116 220 100 96 100 100 89 104

Nimmo strikes out too much and doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, but dammit does he walk! Since Nimmo’s full-season debut in 2017, he ranks 6th in walk rate among hitters with at least 1,000 PA, behind only — maybe you know these guys? — Trout, Judge, Votto, Soto and Harper. By wRC+, he’s been well above league average in each of those three seasons (118, 148, 114), and he’s already had a breakout of sorts in 2018, when he generated 4.5 fWAR in 535 PA. His per-600 PA pace included 19 homers, 10 stolen bases, 86 runs and a .404 OBP that season, making him a quality power-speed table-setter atop a lineup, both real and in Fantasy.

The first question with Nimmo is, can he stay healthy? He missed significant time in 2017 and 2019 with a variety of seemingly unrelated injuries — a hamstring strain and collapsed lung in 2017, and a neck injury that kept him out for over three months in 2019. He already missed time this year in spring training (version one) for an irregular heartbeat.

The second question is playing time — will he get a full complement of plate appearances? Will he be squeezed into a platoon? Despite hitting from the left side, he hasn’t shown much of a platoon split, with a 119 wRC+ in 259 career PA against lefties and a 131 wRC+ in 825 PA against righties. The Mets outfield could get crowded, with Michael Conforto and J.D. Davis each seemingly having a spot locked down, and Dominic Smith, Jake Marisnick and Eduardo Nunez also on the roster and capable of playing the outfield. That’s not even mentioning Yoenis Cespedes’ return.

We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Nimmo is a former first-round pick, still just 27 years old and already has a 4.5-win season on his resume. If he’s healthy and playing well, then playing time shouldn’t be much of an issue. For what it’s worth, Mets’ beat writer from The Athletic, Tim Britton, agrees, writing “as long as he’s healthy, Nimmo’s going to be an everyday outfielder.” He also believes the Mets' best lineups both include Nimmo — batting fifth against righties and seventh against lefties. He hit second, with McNeil leading off, in many lineup iterations this spring.

It’ll be interesting to see what first-year manager Luis Rojas does. By most accounts, the real question will be if Nimmo can stay healthy. If he does, he should be a profit machine for Fantasy managers. He finished 2017 as the 47th best outfielder in 5x5 — he’s currently being drafted as the 89th outfielder. Giddy up.

 

Kole Calhoun, Arizona Diamondbacks

82nd POWA Percentile
344 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
106 135 102 159 120 100 86 110

Calhoun’s rank among outfielders from the last three seasons: 43rd, 80th, 52nd

He’s currently being drafted as the 80th outfielder, or the lowest we’ve seen him finish these last three seasons.

Despite oddly projecting him for only 139 games played — he’s averaged 152 games played since 2015 — ATC still has him beating that lowly mark, projecting him to finish as the 72nd best OF this season.

Having produced at least 2.0 fWAR in five of his last six seasons, Arizona gave him a 2-year $16M deal this offseason, with a club option for 2022. Without a staggering platoon split — he’s a career 98 wRC+ hitter against lefties, 108 wRC+ against righties — and many options to push him for playing time, he should enjoy a healthy leash as an everyday regular.

Sure, his at-bats are likely to come lower in the batting order than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Anaheim, and he’ll face headwinds of a slight downgrade in terms of park, particularly for left-handed power, and lineup (although it shouldn’t be by much). Of course, there’s always the risk of “pressing” after signing with a new team.

But the skills are there. He strikes out a little too much, although he mitigates that with an above-average walk rate and a barrel rate in the top 20% among hitters. He’s also adept at avoiding poor contact. You’re not going to get the gratifying “ohs” and “ahs” at the draft table when you click the button on Calhoun, but once you’re into the 300’s, it’s rare to find this degree of playing time, skills and track record. Boring as it may be, bank the profit and don’t look back.

 

Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds

81st POWA Percentile
328 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
65 120 102 71 115 101 116 93

If Winker had a clearer path to an everyday role, he’d likely be going at least 150 picks earlier and wouldn’t be a candidate for this list. But after Cincinnati signed Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama — with top prospect Nick Senzel still prominently in the mix and Aristedes Aquino, Phillip Ervin and Josh VanMeter looming — the Reds outfield became crowded in a hurry.

Let’s be perfectly clear here, though: Winker is a damn good hitter! In 855 career MLB plate appearances, he’s slashed .285/.379/.466 with a 122 wRC+. His carrying tool is his pristine plate discipline. He’s elite — Votto-ian even! — with his unique combination of a low strikeout rate and high walk rate.

In fact, among hitters with at least 300 PA last season, there were only seven with his combination of strikeout rate (at least 30% better than league average), walk rate (at least 20% better) and hard hit rate (at least 15% better than league average in batted balls hit at least 95 MPH):

Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Anthony Rendon, Max Kepler, Carlos Santana, Nick Markakis (!) … and Jesse Winker

The big question, of course, comes down to playing time. Castellanos just signed a four-year, $64M deal. Senzel was drafted by the Reds second overall in 2016 and was a consensus top 10 prospect up until his debut last season. When healthy, they’re both going to play. That leaves Winker to battle Akiyama, who signed a 3-year $21M deal this offseason, for playing time. While manager David Bell has indicated that he won’t know exactly what the lineup will look like until opening day, there are reports that he likes Akiyama at the top of the lineup when he plays. They’re both high-OBP, left-handed batters, so it isn’t a clean platoon situation.

Winker isn’t going to force the issue with his defense — I’m not sure it matters as this might be the worst outfield defense in the league regardless — and he’s shown a stark platoon split, with just a 52 wRC+ against lefties in 147 career PA. But it wasn’t that long ago he appeared on the cusp of a power breakout and part of the Reds core and, still just 26 and not a free agent until 2024, you’d think they’d want to give him reps against lefties to see if he can be an everyday guy.

Let’s also not forget that he’s now one more year removed from right shoulder surgery, something he said that had been bothering him for several years. His exit velocities, launch angle and plate discipline were all down in 2019 from 2018. There were signs that maybe he was pressing last season, swinging more both inside and outside the zone. Maybe he was still recovering from the offseason shoulder surgery. His wRC+ did jump from 100 in the first half to 149 in the second half (only 103 PA) before a back injury effectively ended his season.

For what it’s worth, the market is betting against Winker and instead believes Castellanos (92 ADP), Senzel (211) and Akiyama (265) will be the Reds regular outfield. Based on the reports that we have, I can understand why. But I think there’s a lot less clarity in this situation — particularly between Akiyama and Winker — than their current 130-pick gap suggests. At those prices, I’ll take the much cheaper player, particularly when it comes with Winker’s profile and the additional year removed from major surgery. Things happen and if they break right, this is a skillset and situation — a top 5 hitter’s park and much improved lineup — that you’ll want exposure to.

 

Derek Fisher, Toronto Blue Jays

75th POWA Percentile
592 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
142 153 104 176 125 104 108 94

Fisher is probably the longest shot on this list given he’s the only one without any sort of track record of success at the major league level. In 419 career PA, he’s been 25% below league average with the bat and failed to generate a sliver of fWAR, to the tune of a .191/.279/.369 slash line.

Despite those struggles, his per-600 PA pace during that time also includes 23 HR and 14 SB. There are some tasty skills in Fisher’s profile waiting to be unlocked. However, his middling hit tool — he earned a 40/45 present/future “hit” grade from FanGraphs — has been his biggest impediment to everyday playing time, manifesting in a career strikeout rate (36.5%) reserved only for Gallo-ian power and minor leaguers. As a left-handed batter, he was shifted on nearly 58% of his plate appearances last season, suffering a 63-point drop in wOBA when shifted versus when not shifted. There’s no question that he’s shown holes in his game.

But at least he does some other things well! His career walk rate (10.3%) is a good place to start, and last year (12.6% in 167 PA) it was 53% above league average. When he makes contact, it’s often good contact. Both his average and maximum exit velocities were a hair above average and his barrel rate (per batted ball event) was in the 89th percentile. He’s got elite speed, earning a “70” grade from FanGraphs — his sprint speed (91st percentile) and home-to-first time (94th percentile) were both in the top 10% of the league.

Now 26 and out of minor-league options, he has nothing left to prove in the minors — in 1,053 career PA in Triple-A, he’s slashed .292/.378/.525, averaging 28 homers and 23 stolen bases per 600 PA and never finishing a season with a wRC+ below 113. After being traded from the Astros as part of the Aaron Sanchez deal, Fisher might finally have his best shot to carve out regular playing time, something he never had — and was unlikely to ever get — with the Astros. He’s likely fourth in the outfield pecking order after Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez, but there are everyday DH at-bats available and Fisher could steal regular time in the outfield, allowing a questionable defender like Hernandez to regularly DH.

Given his lack of track record and secure playing time, Fisher’s success certainly feels like a longshot. But that’s more than priced into his near-600 ADP, and with his skillset and power-speed combo — ATC projects him for 21 homers and 14 stolen bases per 600 PA — he’s a worthy dart throw in uber-deep formats, and someone to otherwise watch closely early in the season.

Just Missed — Too Expensive: Andrew McCutchen (93rd, 197), Mark Canha (89th, 269), Joc Pederson (87th, 218), Shin-Soo Choo (86th, 227), Sam Hilliard (84th, 255), Austin Hays (81st, 282), Ian Happ (79th, 269), Alex Verdugo (78th, 208), Ryan Braun (75th, 175)

Honorable Mentions: Nick Markakis (91st, 488 in March “Draft Champions” drafts), Hunter Pence (82nd, 448), Jason Heyward (80th, 436), Jay Bruce (77th, 424), Alex Dickerson (76th, 427)

 

Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

85th POWA Percentile
451 ADP

K% BB% Avg. EV Barrels/BBE EV 95+ % Max EV Poor % Avg. Dist.
86 164 98 123 101 97 54 126

Usually the conversation around Belt starts around health and ballpark. For his career, he’s 21% better than average with the bat, so there’s not a ton of questions about the talent. But he’s struggled to stay on the field, averaging just 127 games per season since 2012, and the home park is so punitive — particularly for power — that Fantasy managers have avoided it like the plague.

That’s what makes the timing of this odd: he’s coming off a season where he actually played the entire thing! (He played 156 games and went to the plate 616 times.) The problem was, he just wasn’t particularly good, finishing with just 17 home runs, a .234/.339/.403 slash line and 99 wRC+, a career-low and the first time in his career that he finished below 100. Almost 32 years old now, that completes a troubling four-year trend where his wRC+ has decreased each season, from 136 in 2016, to 119, 108 and then 99 in 2019.

But many of the skills still appear intact! He reduced his strikeout rate to a career-low 20.6% while pushing his walk rate up to 60% better than league average. He’s never been an exit velocity killer, but he’s at least near league average in that regard, in addition to being in the top third of the league by barrel rate and the top 1% in terms of avoiding bad contact (batted balls defined by Statcast as “poorly topped”).

Revisiting the ballpark situation, this offseason they’ve moved the fences in five to eight feet, depending on which part of the park you’re referring to, as well as reducing the height of fences in left and center field by one foot. It’s unlikely to have a major impact, but perhaps the park will go from playing extreme to simply pitcher-friendly.

I don’t think anyone is excited to roster Belt — I don’t blame you — but he’s almost surely guaranteed everyday playing time when healthy, his park situation is likely to improve (at least marginally) and his skills are still largely intact. We’re talking about the 400’s here. Not to mention, there’s some value in a Belt selection at this point — despite the down season, he finished as the 36th first baseman last season and ATC projects him to finish 38th at the position this season. He’s currently being drafted as the 41st first baseman by ADP. Maybe there’s something there for your corner infielder slot? I have a friend who’s a Giants fan and used to perpetually name his teams, “Year of the Belt.” Maybe this is the year? Okay, probably not.

 

Closing Thoughts

It’s fun to see how a good hitting profile comes together. Sometimes it’s a carrying tool, whether that be a plus strikeout rate or an ungodly walk rate. Maybe it’s an ability to annihilate baseballs. In some cases, it’s a little bit of everything with no superstar in the profile. Whatever it is, this isn’t a “throwaway” portion of the draft. There’s a lot of value and profit to be mined — if you can pair a sound foundation with 1-2 “hits” in this range, you might be clearing out more trophy space on your shelves following the season. To do so, it helps to select for skills that make good hitters — and that’s why we target POWA hitters.

 

Make sure to poke around the full leaderboard on RotoBaller to see what other late gems you can find — let me know on Twitter (@RotoPope) if there are some standout options that I missed!



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Prospects To Watch: Flamethrowing Righties and ROY Candidates

Perhaps there's nothing more tantalizing in fantasy baseball than drafting and up and coming prospect or rushing to the waiver wire to bid on a Triple-A call-up. With no minor leagues this year, our favorite prospects are now playing on taxi squads, making it difficult for us to fantasize about since we can't get eyes on their progress. However, that doesn't mean we don't know who's on the cusp of making the big leagues.

Although the 2020 season is shortened, MLB front offices have still found a way to manipulate control over their prospects. Thankfully, we won't have to wait long since July marks the service time deadline, so we should see several big names get the phone call this weekend.

We've already got a glimpse of the number three overall prospect, Luis Robert since the White Sox bought out his arbitration years, and we could see another two or three top-10 prospects in a big-league uniform later this week. The players on this list could already be scooped up in your league, but if they're available, you'll want to get ahead of your opponents and claim them on waivers before the price rises sky-high.

 

Arriving Soon

Gavin Lux - 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers

It was surprising when the Dodgers announced that MLB's number two overall prospect Gavin Lux would begin the season on the taxi squad after playing 23 games with the club in 2019. He was a late arrival to camp, so his swing could need a little extra time to reach midseason form, plus they have two veterans in Kike Hernandez and Chris Taylor who can handle the keystone in the meantime.

Lux's callup is inevitable, and it could come as early as this weekend. The Dodgers do have the luxury of having plenty of infield depth, but he has the most talent among the aforementioned Hernandez and Taylor. After hitting over .316 in every minor league stop above Low-A, if he can flirt in the .280-.300 range in the majors, the counting stats will pile up batting in one of the league's top offenses.

Nate Pearson - SP, Toronto Blue Jays

After signing Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year contract this offseason, the Blue Jays could have a very formidable one-two punch in the coming years if Nate Pearson is as advertised. The 6'6" right-hander spent the majority of the 2019 season in Double-A, where he racked up an impressive 28.3% K-rate while holding a 2.57 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. With a fastball that hits triple-digits, he can get a little wild, but there's a lot to love with an effective changeup and slider also in his arsenal.

If the 2020 season had started on time, we likely wouldn't have seen Pearson until at least a couple of months into the season since he has only made three starts at the Triple-A level. Now with the added playoff spots, the Jays have a legitimate chance at grabbing a seed, and they'll need the flamethrower in their rotation to do so. Jays manager Charlie Montoyo confirmed that Pearson will join the club's rotation Wednesday versus the Nationals, so grab him now wherever available.

Dylan Carlson - OF, St. Louis Cardinals

Dylan Carlson couldn't do much more to rightfully earn a spot on the Cardinals 30-man roster, but it's hard to argue the business decision to keep him down for a week to gain an extra year of control. The 17th ranked prospect and number one in the Cardinals system hit well in spring training after slashing .292/.372/.542 with 26 homers in 126 games in the minors last season. It was clear back in March that he had nothing left to prove in the minors, and he reiterated the fact with another strong showing at the club's summer camp earlier this month.

It would be a shock if Carlson wasn't called up on the 29th, and when he does get the call, he'll play right field every day in St. Louis. He's a switch-hitter who can hit for power and average from both sides of the dish, and possesses the on-base ability to bat in the middle of the Cardinals lineup for years to come. If Carlson can adjust to the big-league setting early, he's an odds-on favorite for NL Rookie of the Year.

Spencer Howard - SP, Philadelphia Phillies

If service time wasn't a factor, Spencer Howard would have opened the season as the Phillies fifth starter. The team's top pitching prospect dominated his minor league opponents last season, holding a 2.03 ERA and 0.83 WHIP while striking out 94 over 71.0 IP. Howard can stay in the high-90s with his fastball, and uses a curve and a slider to keep hitters off-balance. Like most pitching prospects, command can be an issue, but the swing-and-miss stuff is real.

Howard turns 24 on July 28, and there would be no sweeter gift than to get a major-league promotion soon after. There have been some reports of him starting for the Phils on Friday, but nothing has been confirmed just yet. Some growing pains in the majors could occur since he skipped over pitching at the Triple-A level, but he has the potential to dominate on the mound in any given contest. If you roster Howard, you may want to keep him on the bench in his first couple of starts to let him adjust to his new environment, but don't let that hold you back from adding the right-hander.

 

Right Around The Corner

Jo Adell - OF, Los Angeles Angels

When asked about Jo Adell making the Angels Opening Day roster, manager Joe Maddon stated that there's "no rush" to bring him up, and he still has "things to work on." While we can't argue with Maddon's mindset, the fact remains that the Halos have a glaring need to fill in right field. Adell can provide a power bat with a bit of speed, and he'd make an immediate upgrade to the offense upon his arrival. It's only a matter of time before we see the 21-year-old make his debut in the bigs; we just may have to wait a little longer than expected.

Jarred Kelenic - OF, Seattle Mariners

The Mariners received some criticism when they dealt Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to the Mets two offseasons ago, but once Jarred Kelenic arrives in the big leagues, general manager Jerry Dipoto will look like a genius. Kelenic tore up the minors in 2019, slashing .291/.364/.540 with 23 homers and 20 thefts in 117 games between Low-A and Double-A ball. Drafted sixth overall in the 2018 draft, the left-handed swinger hasn't spent much time in the minors, but with the M's not playing for much this season, his bat could get fast-tracked to the majors.

Brendan Rodgers - 2B/SS, Colorado Rockies

Drafted only behind Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman in 2015, injuries have delayed Brendan Rodgers' permanent stay with the Rockies after undergoing shoulder surgery last July. A clear path to playing time has also stood in the way of the 23-year-old, and it will likely take an injury to a Rockies infielder for him to return to the club. As a player with outstanding plate discipline who can hit for power and average, the bonus of his favorable home park is the icing on the cake. Finding consistent at-bats is the only hurdle standing in his way.

Nick Madrigal - 2B, Chicago White Sox

Although Leury Garcia is off to a hot start as the second baseman for the White Sox, Nick Madrigal is the future at the position. Madrigal's 5'7" 165 lb frame doesn't possess much pop, but he can get on base, steal bases, and score runs like no other. Swiping 35 bags in 120 games across three minor league stops a year ago, the fourth overall pick from 2018 was a wizard with the bat striking out just 16 times in 473 plate appearances. Chipping in with 44 walks to aid a .377 OBP, if Madrigal can work his way to the top of the lineup this year, he can be a difference-maker in the R, SB, and BA categories.



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2019 Breakout Starters Who’ll Continue to Improve

Breakout starters are one of the great joys of fantasy baseball. There are few things more satisfying than adding or drafting a player who emerges as one of the season’s best values.

Starting pitchers are particularly prone to come out of nowhere and propel a team to a championship. However, that volatility makes it difficult to judge whether a breakout star will regress, repeat, or continue their growth.

Here are three starting pitchers whom fantasy managers can target to pick up where they left off in 2019.

 

Eduardo Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox

Prior to 2019, Rodriguez had never pitched more than 137 innings in a year, never exceeded 150 strikeouts, and never managed to stay healthy for an entire MLB season. In his fifth season, E-Rod accumulated 203 IP, providing 19 wins, 16 quality starts, 213 Ks, and a 3.81 ERA.

On a per-start basis, Rodriguez’s 2019 looks like the healthy version of his 2018 season, actually worse on certain levels. If we were only judging by results, that would be the end of it, but the underlying stats and approach suggest that Rodriguez took another step forward in 2019.

Last season, Rodriguez threw his slider less often and at a lower velocity, but the pitch gave up fewer barrels. His fastball was a half tick slower, but he used it to get more whiffs than ever before. Finally, Rodriguez developed his sinker as a tool against hitters when he was ahead in the count. The righty used the pitch 25% of the time when he had two strikes on a hitter, and in 2019, hitters produced a pitiful .046 ISO and .205 BA against it. Over the last two seasons, Rodriguez’s sinker has evolved to better emulate his fastball, thereby adding a level of deception that he lacked prior to 2018.

So why are we expecting an improved 2020 from him? For starters, Rodriguez’s weakness had always been his ability to stay healthy over an entire season. He’s not likely to see as many innings, and 2019 suggests that he may finally have gotten healthy or have found a way to stay healthy as an MLB pitcher. Additionally, the changes above crystallized throughout the 2019 season, and Rodriguez posted a 2.95 ERA in the second half. Of course, we’d like to see more of a track record, but if he had that type of history, he’d be going 50 picks earlier alongside Jose Berrios.

 

Aaron Civale, Cleveland Indians

Civale has shown up in many places as a player who could outperform his draft slot. However, I think we need to take it a step further and be clear that while Civale probably won’t improve on his ratio stats, he should be more valuable in 2020 than he was in 2019.

Civale’s 3.36 xERA and a .278 xwOBA made him a StatCast darling. The simple story of those numbers is that Civale controls hard contact. In 57.2 innings with 164 batted ball events, Civale allowed just four barrels, giving him a 2.4% barrel rate, which was better than every other starting pitcher with at least 150 BBE.

Beyond Civale’s ability to prevent hitters from making good contact, he also pitches for Cleveland, which carries two distinct advantages. First, the Indians organization has shown the ability to develop pitchers and cultivate their repertoires. Civale’s situation in Cleveland is a more inspiring context than most other teams. Secondly, Civale pitches in the central, so he’ll have the advantage of pitching against the worst hitting of the three regions for 2020.

Owners should feel confident reaching for Civale ahead of his current draft slot at 239. Let’s not oversell him, but it’s hard to understand how Civale is being selected after pitchers like Jon Gray and Dakota Hudson.

 

Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers

Apparently, there are some owners who are still spooked by Boyd’s struggles in August and September. OK, it could also be related to the fact that he plays for Detroit. Regardless, Matthew Boyd did most of what he needed to do to win our respect last season.

From 2015 to 2018, the big lefty had a 19.9% strikeout rate. In 2019, that spiked to 30.2%, and his K-BB% improved to 23.9%. That was eighth-best among pitchers with at least 150 IP. Similarly, Boyd’s xFIP (3.88), SIERA (3.61), and xERA (3.86) suggest that we’ll see him dramatically outperform his 2019 ERA (4.56).

Using his slider more than ever, Boyd punished hitters by inducing more swings outside the zone (34.7% O-Swing) and more whiffs (14.0%). That latter number suggests that we might see some regression in his strikeouts. However, that’s why Boyd is such a compelling target for later in drafts: even if his peripherals regress from 2019, he could emerge as a quality SP3 for fantasy teams. Remember Boyd’s 23.9 K-BB%? It was better than Yu Darvish’s 23.7%, Stephen Strasburg’s 23.2%, and Charlie Morton’s 23.2%. By comparison, Boyd is available 100 picks later than any one of those three. While he’s not going to rack up the wins this year, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see many 7 or 8 game winners (the 2020 equivalent of a 20-game winner). The simple reality is that Boyd should still provide strong strikeouts, a 3.80 ERA, and enough wins to be a serious asset this season.

 

Honorable Mention

Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers: I would like to announce my candidacy for the Brandon Woodruff fantasy fan club. The only reason he’s not listed above is that I’m concerned that some natural strikeout regression might mitigate his value. Despite that very very very modest concern, Woodruff could leverage his velocity and improved control into a top-10 performance this season. Woodruff's underlying statistics and fantasy numbers were already quite good for 2019. Go deeper and you can see that as the season progressed, he gained velocity and forced hitters to chase more and more pitches outside the zone. Plus, Woodruff also has the advantage of pitching in the central this season.

Frankie Montas, Oakland A's: Buy Montas’ improvement. He’s being valued alongside pitchers with just as many warts and who are further removed from the type of success Montas demonstrated last year. The changes in Montas' pitch mix and approach won't rely on the PED enhancement.

Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates: I’m not sure if Joe Musgrove broke out or not. Some of the stats suggest that he did, and some aspects make Musgrove look like a poor man's Matthew Boyd. However, we never got to see stretches where Musgrove put it all together in the same way that Boyd did. He’s an interesting late-round flyer, and he should outperform his 2019 numbers especially now that Pittsburgh finally has a new regime.

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Outfielders Ready to Break Out Late

Finding value is crucial on draft day and finding just one or two players later in drafts that provide better numbers than projected can give you a significant edge on the competition as you bid for fantasy glory.

All too often, we look for the new shiny object in drafts thinking they’ll come up to the Majors and dominant straight away. While some do, we need to remember that development isn’t linear and while some players will be stars at 22, some players take a bit longer to show their real talents.

That’s where we will be focusing our attention now, looking at three outfielders who are aged between 26-29 years old and are set to break out after having a so-so career to date.

 

Michael Conforto (OF, NYM)

27 years old

Conforto entered 2019 with some question marks over his health having managed only 109 games in 2016 and in 2017. Despite those concerns, Conforto played in 151 games last year which followed a 153 games season in 2018. Those health concerns should be allayed by now. Conforto currently has an ADP ~119 in NFBC drafts so word seems to be out that Conforto can hit.

Last year’s career-high 33 homers and .257/.363/.494 slash line might make you think the breakout has already happened, but a little scratch beneath the surface will reveal even more fantasy goodness awaits.

The above chart shows the number of barrelled balls for Conforto in each of the last four seasons, where he managed to have 48 barrelled balls last year. His barrel rate has improved to the point he ranked 44th overall among 250 qualified hitters last year, with a barrel rate of 11.9% according to Statcast. That was one spot behind Anthony Rendon and J.D Martinez (both had 12%).

If we take a peek at Conforto’s expected numbers from last year also, it shows us he was a tad unlucky so there is scope for improvement just based on better fortune at the plate.

AVG xAVG Diff
.257 .262 .005
SLG xSLG Diff
.494 .504 .010
WOBA xWOBA Diff
.358 .367 .009

That .367 xWOBA (expected weighted on-base average) is in the 87th percentile of all qualified hitters and his .504 xSLG (expected slugging percentage) is in the 80th percentile. A little bit more luck should see Conforto hit 35+ homers in a full season.

Conforto’s walk-rate aids his power as it allows him to be more selective at the plate. His walk rate (BB%) in the last three seasons has been 13.0% in 2017, 13.2% in 2018 and 13.0% in 2019 so is consistently elite. Last year, Conforto ranked 17th in walk-rate among all hitters with at least 500 plate appearances. In leagues that count OBP or walks, Conforto’s value is even greater.

The final piece of Conforto propaganda is his ability to chip in with some stolen bases too. His somewhat middling 27.5 MPH average sprint speed last year (ranked tied 226th out of 568) still saw him steal 7 bases in 9 attempts. Over the course of a full season, hitting double-digit steals isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either.

Hitting in the heart of the Mets lineup, Conforto tallied 90 runs and 92 RBIs last year as well and that isn’t going to change so Conforto can contribute among all counting stats without negatively impacting your batting average. His high walk-rate makes him even more valuable in OBP leagues and even in standard leagues, Conforto should be able to return top-100 value even without a breakout, which now he’s in his peak years, is very much on the cards.

 

Kyle Schwarber (OF, CHC)

27 years old

Schwarber has become a “Statcast Darling”, one of those annoying phrases chucked around in fantasy sports which catch on and is liberally used to emphasize points. But the salient fact is, Schwarber’s Statcast profile is a thing of beauty.

Only three players had a higher hard-hit rate and higher exit velocity; Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz and Aaron Judge. There’s no questioning Schwarber’s power….. it’s elite. Given those numbers, why am I suggesting he’s due for a breakout rather than thinking he's already had one? Simply put, he should top his career-high 38 homers he hit in 2019 with ease (over a full season).

Schwarber currently has an ADP ~139 in NFBC drafts, 36th among outfield eligible players. For someone who keeps company with the top power hitters in the game, he should be going earlier in drafts.

Here’s a comparison of power numbers between Schwarber, Sano, Cruz and Judge over the last three years.

Player HR/AB HR/AB rank SLG SLG rank
Kyle Schwarber 14.67 4th .492 4th
Miguel Sano 14.27 3rd .505 3rd
Nelson Cruz 13.07 2nd .562 2nd
Aaron Judge 12.58 1st .572 1st

In its simplest terms, despite having a comparable average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, Schwarber’s results haven’t quite matched up to the others.

The reason I believe Schwarber will be a top-5 power hitter in the next year or two also lies in his improvements over the last three seasons which we can see below.

Year K% AVG vs LHP OPS vs LHP wOBA vs LHP
2017 30.9% .171 .648 .290
2018 27.5% .224 .654 .299
2019 25.6% .229 .756 .316

Year on year growth in reducing his strikeout rate and improving against left-handed pitching as he is now entering his peak years should see Schwarber hit for more power. His batting average against left-handed pitching isn’t anything to shout about but he’s no longer a “must sit versus lefties” candidate and the power output has improved. Cutting down his strikeouts without diminishing his power has also been a big factor in his development and his career 13% BB% is also a positive sign that he is selective enough at the plate to fully harness his power.

If 2020 was a full season, I’d take the over on Schwarber’s home run total even if it was set at 45. Remember, development isn’t linear and Schwarber has improved in each of the last three seasons to now be established as a dangerous hitter and one who could lead the league in home runs and heavily outperform his current ADP.

 

Byron Buxton (OF, MIN)

26 years old

Byron Buxton’s current NFBC ADP is ~156. That may seem a bit high for someone who cannot stay healthy and has averaged 87 games since 2016. It was 87 games which Buxton managed last season too, following on from just 28 games in 2018. So this pick is purely based on the hope that Buxton stays healthy. If he does, we can expect him to outperform his current ADP dramatically.

Let us start by looking at his speed. Last year, Buxton had an average sprint speed of 30.3 ft/sec. Tim Locastro and Trea Turner were the only players who had better. Since his Major League debut in 2015, Buxton has never finished outside the top-3 in average sprint speed. In the 87 games he managed last year, Buxton had 14 stolen bases and back in 2017 when he played 140 games, he stole 29 bases. Throughout a full season, there’s no reason to think Buxton wouldn’t steal 30 bases.

The next reason to believe Buxton is due for a big breakout is the improvements made over the last three seasons. Below shows all the areas in which Buxton has made improvements at the plate;

Year GB% FB% LD% Barrel% Hard hit% K% wOBA ISO
2017 42.6% 22.3% 9.4% 5.6% 32.3% 29.4% .312 .160
2018 49.2% 22.2% 19.0% 1.6% 27.0% 29.8% .170 .044
2019 29.6% 27.2% 28.6% 8.3% 38.7% 23.1% .340 .251

Buxton is hitting fewer groundballs, more flyballs and more line drives. He’s also barrelling the ball more often and hitting it harder. He’s striking out less too. As we’ve said regularly, development isn’t linear and Buxton is only just entering his peak years. Even if he just maintains these gains without improving further, 20 home runs should be achieved in a full season.

We now have a 20 homers, 30 steals outfielder who is now in his peak years and that’s a projection which is purely borne from what he’s done so far, not what he could do going forward. Last year, Buxton also had a career-high batting average (.262), which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the improvements he made. Even if that maintains, it’s a serviceable average in today’s game.

The Twins also boast one of the most dangerous offenses and even if Buxton hits lower down the order, 80+ runs and RBI shouldn’t be a problem. Out of those 87 games last year,  Buxton hit ninth in the order in 72 of them. He still scored 48 runs and drove in 46.

The delay to the season could benefit Buxton more than most. It will have given him more time to condition himself and reduce the impact of the injuries he’s suffered. That’s still not a guarantee he’ll stay healthy regardless of how long a 2020 season is. Fewer games could also mean fewer chances for Buxton to get hurt. Clutching at straws perhaps, but I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

In an era where stolen bases are fewer and farther between, finding someone with an ADP over 150 who can steal 30 bases and help across all other counting stats is like gold dust. The injury risk is factored into the cost at this stage but in a season that will have so many question marks and anomalies, the gamble on his health will return high dividends if it comes off.

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Three Hitters Set To Break Out Earlier Than Expected

MLB hitters often tend to experience their best seasons between ages 26 and 29 years old. Even so, many players have breakout seasons before that peak. The cheapest path to talent acquisition is by successfully targeting players before they have their first big year and this article will take a look at three players who could do so this year.

Since many young breakout candidates are current or former top prospects, not all come at a discount on draft day. Some of these talented youngsters have had underwhelming careers thus far, and recognizing the potential of these cheap assets can pay significant dividends for fantasy teams.

For this article, we'll define a breakout season is one in which the hitter has his most valuable fantasy season to date by a significant margin and is worth rostering in most leagues;. Whether it be through more regular playing time, improved per-game production, or a combination of the two, the hitters listed below have an unusually high chance of breaking out this season given their age and should be closely monitored by fantasy owners.

 

Rowdy Tellez (1B, TOR)

25 years old

Tellez is fighting for a roster spot with the Blue Jays this year, but the 25-year-old is a breakout candidate after posting a .742 OPS over 111 games in 2019. Last season, Tellez posted a 90.7 mph average exit velocity to go along with a 41.8% hard-hit rate and a 13.2% barrel rate, helping him earn an impressive .434 xwOBA on contact. However, even with near-elite quality of contact, Tellez wound up with a middling .332 xwOBA, held down by a 28.4% K-rate.

Unsurprisingly, Tellez owns a poor plate approach with a 40% chase rate and a 64.9% z-swing rate, with contact skills that are no better (70.5% contact rate, 81.1% z-contact rate). Encouragingly though, Tellez has spent the offseason working to improve his contact skills by tweaking his swing and adjusting his training regimen.

If Tellez had instead posted a 25% strikeout rate last season, he would’ve put an additional 14 balls in play. That may not sound like much, but based on his career average BABIP it would have resulted in an 11-point increase in his batting average. And if Tellez’s hit-distribution had remained constant, his slugging percentage would have increased 21-points to a .470 SLG.

Combined with the likelihood that Tellez’s performance suffered from bad luck last season after posting a .267 BABIP and an xwOBA that was 24-points higher than his wOBA, Tellez’s potential contact improvements suggest that he has a relatively high chance of breaking out in 2020. Fantasy owners should be wary of investing a significant amount Tellez on draft day (and most shouldn’t have to given his 453 ADP) because of his lack of guaranteed playing time, but Tellez’s early-season performance should be monitored, and he may deserve restoring if he shows signs of an improved contact-rate.

 

Victor Reyes (OF, DET)

25 years old

Reyes offers solid contact skills (81.6% contact rate) and an aggressive plate approach (51.5% swing rate) that help provide him with a reasonably high floor, and his developing power gives him significant upside in 2020. While his power metrics are generally lacking, with an 86.4 mph average exit velocity and a 30.8% hard-hit rate, his power is trending in the right direction.

Reyes put on 10 pounds of muscle coming into last season, and it came with a 2.4 mph increase in his average exit velocity and a five-point point increase in his xwOBA on contact. Encouragingly, Reyes has reportedly spent this offseason working to add even more muscle, which could provide him with an additional power burst this year.

Although Reyes is avoiding a major swing change to hit more balls in the air, he did see a spike in fly balls late last season. If Reyes can maintain his fly-ball bump into 2020, then his power output could also see additional improvements.

Overall, Reyes has the potential to see his OPS jump over .820 this year if his power output increases enough. Combined with his potential to steal more than 15 bases over a full season (9 in 69 games last year ), Reyes is a breakout candidate worth investing in this year.

 

Gavin Lux (2B, LAD)

22 years old

Lux had a relatively unimpressive major league debut last season with a .705 OPS over 23 games, but his performance should improve significantly in 2020. The first important aspect to note about Lux’s 2019 major league performance was how unlucky he was.

Had he qualified, Lux's 42-point difference between his wOBA and xwOBA would've ranked third and his 48-point difference between BA and xBA would have ranked first. Lux could also see his strikeout rate fall from 29.3% to around 25% after posting an 11.4% swinging-strike rate and 41.1% swing-rate last season. Furthermore, Lux’s 6.4% HR/FB ratio was at least four points too low based on his batted-ball profile.

There are two caveats to note about relying on luck to predict a Lux breakout though: shifts and his BABIP. Defenses shifted on 36.6% of Lux’s plate appearances last season, and his wOBA dropped to .266 in those situations, partly due to his 10% oppo-rate on ground-balls. Lux also posted an already higher-than-average .327 BABIP last year. For Lux's average to have actually reached his .288 xBA, he would've needed to run an unsustainable .398 BABIP (without adjusting for home runs).

In addition to luck, Lux has a couple of ways to reasonably improve his 2020 performance. Lux never went to the opposite field less than 26% of the time in the minor leagues but posted just a 17.6% oppo-rate in the majors last season, making him unusually susceptible to shifts. But Lux may have made a swing adjustment to add power and pull the ball more often last year. If that's the case, then Lux might also see a power bump in 2020.

Based on his bad luck from last season, expected adjustments, and potential improvements, Lux appears capable of posting above an .800 OPS, with the potential to eclipse .900 this season. Given he's likely to post double-digits in home-runs and stolen-bases with regular playing time, Lux is an attractive breakout candidate this season.

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Infielders Ready to Break Out Late

Finding value is crucial on draft day and finding just one or two players later in drafts that provide better numbers than projected can give you a significant edge on the competition as you bid for fantasy glory.

All too often, we look for the new shiny object in drafts thinking they’ll come up to the Majors and dominant straight away. While some do, we need to remember that development isn’t linear and while some players will be stars at 22, some players take a bit longer to show their real talents.

That’s where we will be focusing our attention now, looking at three infielders who are aged between 26-29 years old and are set to break out after having a so-so career to date.

 

Dansby Swanson (SS, ATL)

26 years old

I was surprised that Swanson was 26 years old, thinking he was still around 23. After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015, Swanson made his Major League debut a year later for the Atlanta Braves following a trade that saw Shelby Miller move to the desert. But we won’t open old wounds for Diamondbacks fans here. Swanson had already established himself as the Braves starting shortstop for the 2017 season and has stuck there since.

Swanson currently has an ADP of ~244 in NFBC drafts and is the 24th shortstop being drafted. It’s widely considered that shortstop is the deepest position in fantasy this year but 23 shortstops going before Swanson still seem excessive.

If we take a look at his numbers the last three seasons, we can see the growth in his hitting and remember, he’s yet to reach his peak years which are generally considered being 26-28 years of age.

Year PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
2017 551 6 3 .232 .312 .324 .276
2018 533 14 10 .238 .304 .395 .292
2019 545 17 10 .251 .325 .422 .317

For 2020, Swanson is currently projected for 24 homers, 11 stolen bases, 81 RBI, 83 runs and with a .262/.327/.482 slash line. That falls in line with how he’s improved year on year but is there room for even more growth in 2020? A look at his expected statistics last season, courtesy of Statcast, suggests that he could have had a better year in 2019 than he did so 2020’s projections are about what he should have had last year if luck wasn’t against him.

AVG xAVG Diff
.251 .271 + .020
SLG xSLG Diff
.422 .480 + .058
WOBA xWOBA Diff
.317 .347 + .030

If you consider that Swanson’s xWOBA of .347 ranked him tied-74th among the 250 qualified hitters on Statcast last season and was higher than Nolan Arenado (.344), Gleyber Torres (.341) and Trevor Story (.339), it paints a picture of someone being undervalued.

A further look at Swanson's Statcast profile for last year further corroborates the notion that he should be going earlier in drafts.

It shows us that Swanson ranked around the top third in hitting but the sprint speed jumps out. We should all know by now that speed doesn’t translate into stolen bases, but being in the 88th percentile should equate to more than the ten steals he’s had the last two years. In a shortened season, managers might throw a bit more caution to the wind and with 445 Major League games under his belt, Swanson should have developed enough of a read on pitchers to maximize that speed on the basepaths.

Heading into future drafts for the 2020 season, you will see people panic after missing out on the top-tier of shortstops and feeling obligated to take one earlier than necessary. Swanson is currently going as a late middle-infielder but should take a big enough step forward in his age 26 season to warrant being your team’s shortstop if you don’t draft one in the early rounds.

 

Luke Voit (1B, NYY)

29 years old

Voit didn’t make his Major League debut until 2017 as a 26-year-old. The New York Yankees saw enough in him to make a trade and instill Voit as a regular feature of their lineup. That faith was repaid with 14 homers in 39 games. Last year, Voit started the season as the Yankees first choice first baseman but injuries limited Voit to 118 games.

Voit still managed to hit 21 homers and put up a .263/.378/.464 slash line while predominately hitting second or third in the order. Hitting second or third in any lineup holds value but even more so in the Yankees order. Yet his NFBC ADP of ~192 seems to disregard much of what he’s capable of.

I’ve seen some people saying Voit’s an injury risk, but last year’s two IL-stints were linked (sports hernia and abdominal strain) and he hadn’t hit the IL as a Major Leaguer before last year. Granted, an injury in 2020 will have a greater fantasy impact than before as a minimal 10-day stint is now over 10% of the season rather than 5%, but there’s nothing to suggest Voit will be a higher risk than the norm.

So why should Voit suddenly breakout out as a 29-year-old? Firstly, look at his Statcast profile.

What immediately hits you is that Barrel% being in the 91st percentile. Voit ranked 22nd in Barrels per Batted Ball Event (Brls/BBE%) with 13.2%. If you don’t know, that means Voit barrelled the ball in 13.2% of his plate appearances which ended in a batted ball event. In the simplest terms; when put bat on ball, it came off the sweet spot more often than all but 21 other hitters. His whiff rate being in the 4th percentile does mean he swings and misses far too often and his 27.8% strikeout rate is testament to that.

Voit’s xwOBA is also impressive being in the 86th percentile. If you don’t know what wOBA is, it measures the quality of contact and incorporates factors such as walks and strikeouts. Voit’s .365 xwOBA (expected wOBA) ranked him 37th overall last year. These two factors alone tell us that Voit puts good wood on the ball.

The other striking statistic from Voit’s 2019 is his walk-rate which was 13.9% last year. That was 15th best in the Major League for all hitters with 400+ plate appearances. We’re now looking at a hitter who gets on base, hits it well when making contact and hits in a prime spot in arguably the most potent offense in the league.

There are 17 first base eligible hitters going ahead of Voit in NFBC drafts, yet Voit is primed to put up top-12 numbers at the position. Even in an 82 game season, Voit looks like a breakout ready to happen and looks like a light version of Joey Gallo. In standard leagues, he can be drafted with complete confidence earlier than his current ADP and in leagues counting walks has even more value.

 

Christian Walker (1B, ARI)

29 years old

Similarly to Voit, Walker flashed his potential last year as the Diamondbacks everyday first baseman following Paul Goldschmidt’s departure. In 152 games, Walker hit 29 homers with a .259/.348/.476 slash line. And similarly to Swanson, Walker was a little unlucky last season with his expected stats better than his actual numbers.

AVG xAVG Diff
.259 .263 + .004
SLG xSLG Diff
.476 .516 + .040
WOBA xWOBA Diff
.346 .362 + .016

Already impressive power numbers, they could have been even better. It’s still a little early to know the impact of the Arizona Humidor but it’s not something which is sapping all the power out of hitters so there shouldn’t be any concern with that. If we also look at Walker’s Statcast profile, you may wonder why he’s going later than Voit in drafts with an ADP ~197 in NFBC drafts.

Although he had a lower walk-rate than Voit, his 11.1% BB% was still 44th best among the 207 hitters who had at least 400 plate appearances last year. You can see Walker’s whiff and strikeout rates are still higher than you’d like them to be but neither is prohibitive in rostering Walker.

His hard-hit rate of 48.4% was 16th overall last year according to Statcast, higher than more notable infielders such as Jose Abreu (48.2%), Rafael Devers (47.5%) and Josh Bell (47.1%). His Barrel-rate was also in the top-tier, with 8.1% of plate appearances ending in a barrelled ball, 35th in baseball.

In a full season, I would expect Walker to top the 30 home run mark and even get up near 40 given his batted ball profile. He should be at his peak in terms of power now aged 29 and the Diamondbacks have strengthened their lineup this year after acquiring Starling Marte (and to a lesser extent Cole Kalhoun) and has the advantage of hitting in the clean-up spot boosting those counting stats. Walker is a great later round option at first base as well as or instead of Voit. Walker also managed to get eight steals last year so he has the capability of being a 5-category contributor primed to put up numbers much better than his ADP suggests he will.

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