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4 Burning Questions (Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
May 30, 2018

This year may turn out to be the year of the prospect, and we haven’t even seen arguably the best pure hitter of the prospect group in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Is it me, or are players peaking earlier than ever before? One prospect I haven’t written about yet but that should be mentioned due to his play since his call up is Austin Meadows. Another home run last night makes four in two weeks and it’s pushed Gregory Polanco to the bench. Keep an eye on the young man, he’s going places.

Meanwhile, veteran pitchers like Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber just seem to stave off father-time proving that pitchers only get better with age. Of course that’s not true, but I’d be interested to see an updated plot of when hitters and pitchers peak since 2015. I can’t help but think hitter and pitcher peaks are heading in opposite directions. While we ponder, let’s get to the burning questions.

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Why you gotta scare us like that Acuña?
Ronald Acuna gave Braves fans and fantasy owners a major scare on Sunday when he beat out a ground ball and landed awkwardly after crossing first base. Yeah, that didn’t look good. He hit the disabled list with an ACL sprain, which is basically the best news he could receive considering the way his leg bent. The amount of time he will miss is loosely said to be between two and four weeks. I’m sure the Braves will be cautious with their talented asset.

Fantasy owners may have to assume they will be without Acuña for at least two weeks or as much as five weeks given the lack of information we have right now. Some replacements that are owned in less than 50% of ESPN and Yahoo leagues include Teoscar Hernandez, Max Kepler, Tyler O’Neill, Mac Williamson, Gorkys Hernandez, and Leonys Martin.  Most of these options should provide power and some speed to help soften the blow to your fantasy team. Hopefully you were able to grab Williamson or Hernandez for their series in Colorado. If not, just looking at match-ups, the ghost of Carlos Gonzalez gets to play at home against the Dodgers, so he’s a short-term option as well.

The more important question for Acuña owners is how will the injury affect him, if at all, once he returns? As a young healthy athlete, there shouldn’t be any lingering effects on his play. That is, as long as the Braves take the conservative approach with his recovery. Outside of a few less stolen base attempts, Acuña should perform at a high level. To date, Acuña only has three stolen base attempts (two steals), so the expectations of 20+ steals should be tempered. Sure, Acuña will miss some time, but it’s far from the worst-case scenario. I believe his batted ball profile is fantastic, even if his strikeout rate settles in around 25%. He currently ranks 10th in average exit velocity per BaseballSavant with a minimum 80 batted balls. Need I remind you, the kid is 20 years old. Hold tight.

Will the real Dylan Bundy please stand up?
The Dylan Bundy roller coaster is not one that fantasy owners enjoy all that much. He’s had starts where he’s given up seven earned runs without recording an out and others where he struck out 14 batters. Sometimes they come one after the other, and the guessing game is one I’d wish on no one. As an owner, if you bench him, you may miss out on those elite starts but at the same time, his blowups will either kill your ratios in rotisserie leagues or could lose you a week in head-to-head match-ups.

I heard a stat from Alex Fast of PitcherList.com based solely on Dylan Bundy’s fastball velocity. Over the course of Bundy’s career, when his velocity is under 92 mph, he gets tattooed. When he can keep his average fastball velocity at or over 92 mph, he’s been successful. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, we can’t predict what a pitcher’s fastball velocity will be in a given start. Thus far in 2018, Bundy is averaging under 92 mph on his fastball so it’s definitely something to monitor. If the velocity consistently stays below 92 mph, we may have to move on from him.

On the other hand, his strikeout rate is at a career-high 29%, backed by a strong 15.1% SwStr rate. He’s also inducing more swings out of the zone and allowing less contact with pitches in the zone. These are great numbers, but Bundy’s home run issues have resurfaced and he currently sits at over two HR/9. His fastball, of course, is a huge reason why with a total of eight home runs given up against the fastball and a 19% HR/FB. However, Bundy has decreased the fastball usage for a fourth straight year.

It also may surprise you to know that his slider, which is considered his best pitch, has allowed an insane 33.3% HR/FB. The slider also almost never gets put into play with a 46.3% contact rate against and a 33% SwStr rate. In addition to the home runs, his BABIP against the slider is an elevated .381. I’m a firm believer in positive regression to the mean when it comes to his slider.

It’s relatively simple with Bundy. He will give up home runs, there’s no denying that. His tendency to allow a high percentage of fly balls in the AL East will yield above average (as in not good) home run rates. However, luck has not been on his side and his increased slider usage along with decreased fastball usage should result in a very good strikeout rate and a decreased home run rate from its current elevated ratio. Bundy’s potential to be an ace remains in him somewhere, deep, deep down (I promise), but until he can be consistent with his fastball velocity and limit hard contact on fly balls, we have to deal with the occasional headache.

The increase in O-contact, swinging strikes, and zone contact should keep Bundy’s strikeout rate between 9-to-10 per nine innings. That’s useful friends. It may not matter the quality of the opponent because when Bundy is off, he’s way off. I’m holding but if you have a weak stomach, try to move him when he gets on a hot streak.

Reyes Returns, but will he help bolster your fantasy rotation?
Alex Reyes will make his 2018 debut today against the Brewers. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery which occurred prior to the 2017 season. Reyes was arguably the top pitching prospect coming into the 2017 season and was no lower than number three. His recovery is basically right on schedule and the Cardinals have openly said they don’t anticipate an innings limit on Reyes for 2018.

Reyes has been nothing less than sensational in his four rehab starts striking out 44 batters in just 23 innings! His velocity is great, and he’s having no issues missing bats. Based on previous pitchers who have returned from Tommy John surgery, the last skill to return is the command. That’s something Reyes has never really been great at. In the past, he’s actually had below-average command. Walks will be an issue upon his return, there’s no doubt.

I want to circle back to the “no innings limit” the Cardinals have stated. With four months remaining, Reyes could make about 22 starts. Let’s call it 20. At five and a half innings per start, he’s at 110 Major League innings along with 23 innings in rehab starts for a total of 133. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot unless you consider Reyes’ previous career high of 110 innings in 2016. He, of course, didn’t pitch at all in 2017. What happens if the Cardinals make the playoffs? The innings could really pile up.

All that being said, I can see the Cardinals skipping a couple starts and a few short outings due to control issues. While I believe Reyes should be owned in just about every league, be prepared to weather the blow-ups. Those awful outings will be tolerated because there will be some 6 IP, 10 strikeout performances along with 8-to-10 wins. Reyes has a chance to be a fantasy ace, it just won’t be this year. Keep an eye on his command and control. I think the year to own Reyes is 2019. I just hope he doesn’t inflate his value too much this year.

Has first base turned into a fantasy wasteland?
Per the ESPN Player Rater, there are only four first basemen inside the top 50 hitters overall. None of them are named Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, or Cody Bellinger. Freddie Freeman and Jose Abreu are the only two first baseman who were ranked as such in both the preseason and to date. To get an idea of how shallow the position has been this year, there were 13 first baseman ranked inside the top 100 overall, but only Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt, Jose Abreu, and C.J. Cron are currently ranked inside the top 100. There’s a common misconception that middle infield positions are “shallow” yet there are currently 11 2B-eligible players ranked inside the top 100. O, by the way, there are 13 SS-eligible players ranked inside the top 100. MI is deep, get used to it!

So obviously Paul Goldschmidt owners are feeling it the most, but those who drafted Anthony Rizzo, Cody Bellinger, and Edwin Encarnacion are none too happy either. In fantasy baseball, first basemen are largely drafted for power and run production. They are your “big boppers” or cornerstones (pun intended). Most first basemen have very little speed and don’t run much. Since much of their production is tied to power, a decrease in power production in an era where everyone over 150 pounds is hitting 20 to 30 homers can really devalue a player. Each player I mentioned is struggling in their own way. I wrote a piece a couple weeks ago about Paul Goldschmidt who has seen the most dramatic decrease in production of the group.

Take Anthony Rizzo as an example of consistent power production from first base. Almost like clockwork, Rizzo hits 30-to-35 HR and drives in 100-to-110 RBI every year with a decent batting average. Now, middle infielders like Francisco Lindor or 21-year-old sensation Ozzie Albies, who’s perceived value tied largely to batting average and steals, are now adding the power component to their games. Lindor hit 33 home runs in 2017 and is on pace for a similar total this year. Well, that matches Rizzo’s average home run totals over the past few years. Add Lindor’s steals and you have to wonder why anyone would rather have Rizzo over Lindor? It sounds ridiculous now, but Rizzo and Lindor’s ADPs were almost identical. Check out the top 100 overall link above. Rizzo was ranked higher using consensus expert rankings.

It might be unfair to pick on Goldschmidt and Rizzo, but they are not the only highly-ranked first basemen who have disappointed to date. It’s time to shift the thinking of fantasy baseball. No longer should your first baseman be a top pick. Grabbing a guy with good power/speed should be the new “cornerstones.” I absolutely love guys with the power/speed combination in today’s game. In an era when five players stole 30 or more bases in 2017, I want guys like Tommy Pham, Andrew Benintendi, Alex Bregman, etc. A 20-20 hitter is more valuable to me than a 40-0 or even a 30-10 player. Or you can be like Mookie Betts or Mike Trout and just shoot for 40-40. I’m partially joking, but would you be surprised if either of them pulled that off this year?

I won’t call first base a wasteland, but under the current conditions in baseball, it’s time to reevaluate the corner infield positions.

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Max Freeze is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Max, check out his archive and follow him @FreezeStats.

Featured, Injuries, MLB