Middle relievers with big strikeout totals are gaining in value, which has fundamental implications for how fantasy baseball should be played.
A large portion of the conversation in fantasy circles has revolved around how the spike in home runs has altered the landscape—and with good reason. Home runs have increased from 4,186 in 2014 to 4,909 in 2015 to 5,610 in 2016. Entering action Wednesday, major-league hitters were on pace to hit 6,133 home runs in 2017. It is with good reason this has been analyzed ad infinitum. But since this fertile soil has been properly tilled, we can look at a different trend that is slipping under the radar somewhat.
Table 1: Major League Baseball Starting Pitchers, 2013-2017
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Through 33 games, the Detroit Tigers stalwart is having his worst season since he broke in as a 20-year-old in 2003. He just turned 34, but have physical issues caught up the likely Hall of Fame slugger?
For more than a decade, Miguel Cabrera has been one of the truly elite hitters in all of baseball. Despite consistently great performances, fantasy owners in recent seasons have been wary of using first-round picks (or equivalent money in auctions) on the future Hall of Famer, with concern for his imminent decline engrained in discussions of his value. Repeatedly, he’s proven that kind of talk to be silly, and that he’s still an elite hitter. Still, time eventually catches up with all of us, and even Cabrera isn’t immune to the aging curve.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering how Cabrera has struggled to start the season. At least, he’s struggled relative to the standards he’s set for himself. Through his first 139 plate appearances, he is hitting .264/.360/.430 for a TAv of .267. Prior to this season, his lowest TAv not including his rookie year was .295, and that was way back in 2008. He’s ranked as the 32nd first baseman on the Player Rater, right between Mike Napoli and Wilmer Flores. To put it simply, this is not the kind of performance at the plate that we’ve come to expect from Cabrera. Is this the start of that decline we’ve long been worried about—or is it just a blip on the radar?
Sit Fastball. Swing Hard. Strikeouts Don't Matter.
Let’s begin by assuming that the ball isn’t juiced. Over the past two years, we’ve seen a rather obvious spike in the home run rate, such that suddenly Ryan Schimpf and Yonder Alonso are getting mentions in articles about home runs. In 2014, runs scored per game (4.07) had dipped to their lowest rate since 1980, and the game, according to people who watch it for a living, had become un-watchable.
He's getting playing time with the Rockies because of Ian Desmond's injury, and some of the early statistical indicators are encouraging, but what should fantasy owners do in the short- and long-term regarding the free-swinging slugger?
Few players had a better opening week than Rockies first baseman Mark Reynolds. He has started the season by going 9 for 22 with three home runs, four runs scored, and eight RBIs. His early production caught the eye of fantasy owners who made him one of the most-added players of the past week. Reynolds’ ownership percentage has gone from 4 percent to 41 percent in CBS leagues. He experienced a similar spike in ESPN leagues, where he went from 1.5 percent owned to 41.6 percent owned. Reynolds was the second-most added player on Yahoo this week, checking in behind only Kendall Graveman. In 60 percent of leagues, there’s still a chance you could add Reynolds to your roster. The obvious question is: Should you?
We’ll start by looking at the good and the bad when it comes to Reynolds. At the close of the article, a suggested decision will be offered (buy, sell or hold). Is Reynolds a viable fantasy option moving forward?
At this point owners, are only dealing with a week’s worth of data. It’s an incredibly small sample, and it’s impossible to spot any long-lasting trends yet. But if there is one positive sign to be optimistic about, it might be Reynolds’ strikeout rate.
For his career, Reynolds has a whiff rate of 31 percent. He’s never finished a season with a strikeout rate under 25 percent. However, he did take a positive step forward a season ago by dropping it to a career low 25.4 percent. So far in 2017, Reynolds’ whiff rate is 16.7 percent. If there was any real change to his approach this past season, it looks like those gains might hold this year.
Reynolds also has shown the ability in the past to provide major power production. From 2009-2012, he had three straight seasons hitting at least 32 homers, and he clubbed a career-high 44 in 2009. It’s been a number of years since he’s looked like that type of player, and it’s safe to assume that, at his current age, his power production will be diminished.
The move to Coors Field seemed to provide Reynolds with a bump in a couple of categories in which he’s typically struggled. His batting average was a career-high .282 a season ago, and his .356 OBP was noticeably higher than his .327 career mark. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t see much of a bump in power production at the same time.
The obvious issue with Reynolds is that he could quickly be out of a job. Ian Desmond was supposed to be the starting first baseman in Colorado this season, but he’s been out since mid-March with a broken hand. Publicly, the team has said that Desmond should only be out four-to-six weeks, and it sounds as if he’s progressing on schedule. Desmond could be back in Colorado’s lineup in a matter of weeks. Even with a hot start, that would leave Reynolds without a regular spot in the Rockies lineup. The team has much more incentive to play Desmond, who they signed to a 5-year, $70 million deal this offseason, than Reynolds (1-year, $1.5 million). There really is nowhere else they can play Reynolds defensively (unless you wanted to put him in the outfield, but my guess is you don’t).
Reynolds’ track record should also give fantasy owners plenty of caution when assessing this recent outburst. He hasn’t hit 20 home runs since 2014, and the highest batting average he tallied since 2010 was .230 before last season’s .282 mark. PECOTA projected Reynolds to finish this year with a .237 BA and 12 home runs. Those numbers are much closer to what owners should expect than something like .260 with 20+ long balls. At 33 years old, it’s more than likely that Reynolds’ best days are behind him.
Buyer’s Guide: Sell (unless he’s simply a short-term CI option).
The playing-time concerns hang over Reynolds’ hot start like a dark cloud. Unless Desmond experiences a setback, there’s just not any realistic way Reynolds will see regular playing time this season. You might hang on to Reynolds through the first few weeks of Desmond’s return to ensure the injury doesn’t flare up but, beyond that, there’s not much season-long value here.
The one exception to selling on Reynolds is if you simply need a short-term stopgap at a corner-infield spot. He’s going to be the everyday first baseman until Desmond returns, and he’s likely to return more value at this point than any other option readily available in the free-agent pool. If you’re heavily relying on Reynolds for the rest of the season, something could have gone wrong on draft night.
If you own Reynolds, now is the time to try and deal him for whatever you can get. Maybe there’s an owner in your league struggling at 1B/3B. Reynolds could be an attractive option to them given the production they’re looking at after a week’s worth of games. If you can get an owner to bite and return anything of value, now is the time to do it.
2016 was the year of the home run revisited. How might this affect fantasy owners in 2017, and how should it?
With a baseball offseason filled with tense CBA negotiations, prospect lists injecting much-needed optimism, and the perpetual warmth of the sizzling hot stove transaction season underway, the fantasy team at Baseball Prospectus is launching its second annual “Fantasy Categorical Breakdown” series. This is the first installment of our category-by-category review, which will feature a look at the general landscape, over and under-achievers and a deeper dive, to provide fantasy owners with a distinct advantage heading into 2017.
These unheralded players could help you in the long-ball department in 2016.
Over the last two days, we’ve tackled both the overall landscape of the long ball and some of the big names that have either taken steps forward or backward. Today is the final article of this maiden category, and we are going to look at some hitters who don’t get fantasy owners all hot and bothered yet, but could potentially excite you in due time. Well, some. I don’t want you to think this is a glowing endorsement of everyone and then let you down later on. Anyway…
The elite fantasy sluggers who sizzled and fizzled this past season...
The first-ever edition in the Fantasy Categorical Breakdowns series was J.P. Breen’s excellent survey of the overall home run landscape. BP’s esteemed fantasy boss Bret Sayre will dive into the deeper names tomorrow, while today’s piece focuses primarily on which elite hitters made the biggest fantasy impressions this past season, either taking a step forward and breaking out in the power department or regressing from their lofty heights due to injury or ineffectiveness.
Everyone loves big flies, so they're a fitting stat with which to kick off our new category-by-category fantasy series.
With the baseball offseason upon us, the Fantasy Team at Baseball Prospectus will bring y’all a category-by-category fantasy breakdown of the 2015 campaign. Each category will feature three different articles: one on the overarching landscape of the category, one on the elite performers, and one on the deeper names. These articles seek to analyze and interpret what happened in 2015; however, they should also serve as tools to help owners prepare for their next fantasy seasons.
This trio saw its home run totals drop precipitously, but is there reason to hope for a rebound?
In any given year, you are going to be saddled with players who fail to come close to reasonable expectations. It’s frustrating, but it’s the nature of the game. The only upshot is finding the players who had a fluky down year, and those who are truly in the midst of a mid-career collapse. Last season, there were three players who stood out to me as disappointments, especially in the power department. Whether you’re in a dynasty league and trying to figure out how to view these players moving forward, or already looking for good buy-low players in re-draft leagues, the following players may be of some interest in 2015.
There aren’t many good things to be said about Wright’s 2014. After entering the year as a top-25 pick, he finished with a dismal .269 batting average, just eight home runs, and 63 RBI. While the average was surely disappointing, what really killed his line was his utter lack of power. While he’s typically been a 25-plus-homer threat throughout his career, he finished this past season tied in ISO with Billy Hamilton. He had a career-low 5.1 percent HR:FB rate, and though that may sound like he suffered through some bad luck, it’s not that simple. For one thing, his average fly ball fell from 291 feet (right behind Edwin Encarnacion) in 2013 down to 261 (right being Nate Schierholtz) in 2014. The biggest reason for this dip could likely be his shoulder. He battled injuries to it throughout the season, costing him a total of 27 games, and it’s an injury that is notorious for sapping power. That injury is something to keep an eye on this winter, but if he’s fully recovered by Opening Day, he could see a big comeback, especially with the fences being moved in at Citi Field.