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3 Burning Questions (Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
Jun 13, 2018

I could keep writing about how good J.D. Martinez is and how he continues to take hold of the title as the Best Slugger in the game, but I won’t. Except for this quick mention. How many home runs does he end up with this year? 50? 55? 60? Ok, on the other topics that are not Boston related. Some news in baseball involves the significant injuries, most specifically to some big-name starting pitchers. It’ll be very unfortunate if Shohei Ohtani will end up missing the rest of the season. It was difficult to expect over 150 innings and 300+ plate appearance from Ohtani in his first year, but to end this early would be disappointing. Although as a two-way player, he’s been impressive, and I believe he’s going to be an excellent Major League ballplayer. More on the injuries later. Let’s begin with some healthy starters.

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Which starting pitcher would you rather have for the rest of the season?
The pitchers in question are Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell, Patrick Corbin, and Nick Pivetta. Of course, this is in terms of fantasy value. I posed this question on Twitter and Bauer ended up as the winner with 44% of the vote followed by Snell (37%), Corbin (15%), and Pivetta (4%). As of now, three of the four pitchers are rated very highly per the ESPN Player Rater; Bauer, Snell, and Corbin are all inside the 20 for starting pitchers. Meanwhile, Pivetta falls in at 50th overall. It should be noted that Pivetta has thrown about 20 fewer innings that the rest of the group.

Clearly, fans believe in the breakouts of Bauer and Snell and even Corbin to some degree despite a poor outing on Monday against the Pirates. To even the playing field, I’ve compiled a table with rate stats for these four pitchers for comparison sake. Keep in mind, I left off IFFB% because they were all between 9%-11%,

Patrick Corbin 3.10 3.03 31.8% 7.2% 0.258 77.3% 1.03 46.1% 15.6% 41.3%
Trevor Bauer 2.62 2.48 30.3% 8.1% 0.305 74.0% 0.52 45.8% 6.6% 38.7%
Blake Snell 2.30 3.31 27.4% 7.7% 0.234 85.0% 0.98 39.4% 11.1% 33.3%
Nick Pivetta 3.76 2.94 27.5% 6.5% 0.312 73.0% 0.81 41.9% 9.2% 27.5%

It’s quite mixed bag to be completely honest. While Blake Snell has the best fantasy numbers to date, I have concerns with his extremely low BABIP against and the high 85% left on base rate. For context, in the last 10 years, only five qualified pitchers have finished the season with a .234 BABIP, and only four pitchers have finished with a LOB% of 85% or higher. Only one pitcher did both in a single season and that was Zack Greinke in 2015. The odds of Snell continuing with those numbers are extremely slim. In addition, Snell also possess the lowest K%-BB% of the group with a still impressive 19.3%. He does, however, have the highest soft contact against which should keep the BABIP below league average but not .234.

Patrick Corbin easily had the best April of this group but has since regressed a bit. However, his numbers are still impressive as he ranks just outside the top 10 starting pitchers to date in 2018. Corbin is another guy on this list with a BABIP well below league average, but not to the extreme of Snell. Corbin’s concerns involve hard contact and home runs. The 41.3% hard contact is unsightly and is currently seventh worst among qualified pitchers. There are two factors that are in Corbin’s favor, the humidor and his low fly ball rate against. So while the 15.6% HR/FB sounds about right given the hard contact, his 22.8% line drive rate combined with hard contact should raise the BABIP to at least near league average.

Trevor Bauer, the winner of the Twitter poll, seems to have turned the corner this year. His FIP is the lowest of the group, and he has a strong K rate but also the highest walk rate. Then there’s the HR/9 that currently sits at 0.52 per nine innings which is tied for third lowest among qualified pitchers. The difference is, among the pitchers at the bottom of the list (which is a very good thing), Bauer has given up by far the most hard contact. His career 1.04 HR/9, double his current rate, will surely increase. I do believe his BABIP is about right. An incredible jump in SwStr% of over four percent while increasing swings out of the zone and first pitch strike percentage justifies the large jump in strikeout rate. The other reason to believe in the strikeout rate is his utilization of his slider. It’s gotten 45 strikeouts on 211 pitches thrown with a 42.8% O-Swing and a 19% swinging strike rate.

Finally to Nick Pivetta who received a measly 3% of the vote. Sure, his ERA is currently 3.76 but his FIP is only 2.94 and he has a similar K% to Snell with the lowest walk rate of the group. I don’t see any regression coming in terms of BABIP or left on base rate either. His ground ball rate is just fine and he allows the least amount of hard contact of this group. His only issue is the fastball. While he’s increased the velocity, his BABIP against is an insane .402!  His curve and slider, however, are both great at inducing swings outside the zone and getting swings and misses. I love what Pivetta has done this year and expect him to continue on his improvements.

While Bauer, Snell, and Corbin should regress some with their numbers, Pivetta appears to be getting unlucky and should improve on his current ratios. I believe the Twitter poll got it right and Bauer ends up being the most valuable of the four. However, for me, Pivetta is next in line followed closely by Snell and Corbin. I wouldn’t be surprised if all four end up inside the top 30 or even 25 at season’s end. A great investment for those who grabbed any of these pitchers.

Is Max Muncy really someone to pay attention to?
What do we know about Max Muncy, other than he’s got a pretty incredible first name? Well, he’s 27 years old, drafted by the Athletics in 2012, and has now played first base, third base, and outfield for the Dodgers in 2018. Oh, by the way, he started at second base Tuesday night. We also know that coming into this year, Muncy had a total of five home runs in 96 MLB games. In only 44 games this year, Muncy has produced 12 home runs and ranks third in wRC+ begins only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts with a minimum of 150 plate appearances. That’s quite a stretch, and even if it is just a hot streak, it’s worth verifying whether it’s real or not.

Prior to 2018, Muncy had a 45-game sample and a 51-game sample with the Athletics in 2015 and 2016, respectively. He didn’t reach the Majors in 2017 after being acquired by the Dodgers. Now, after 46 games in 2018, he’s gone from irrelevant to fantasy stud in what seems like a week. Take a look at this graph comparing the relatively small samples of 2015, 2016, and 2018.

There’s a lot of peaks and valleys on this plot, but there’s some consistency in terms of his walk rate. It’s hovered around 10% to 15% which is fantastic for a young player without much Major League experience. That really speaks to his patience and his ability to lay off pitches outside the zone, which he’s swung at just under 20% of the time this year. Notice how the wOBA and hard contact decrease when his groundball rate was elevated in 2016. As the ground ball has dropped this year, the hard contact and wOBA have jumped significantly. This could be a swing or approach change that’s helped propel Muncy. Maybe he’s been talking to Justin Turner and working with his swing coaches, who knows?

Believe it or not, this looks a lot like Rhys Hoskins‘ fast start in the second half of last year. If you don’t believe me that Muncy has been nearly as good as that 50-game stretch for Hoskins, just take a look.

Season Name PA HR AVG BB% K% OBP SLG FB% HR/FB Hard%
2017 Rhys Hoskins 212 18 0.259 17% 22% 0.396 0.618 45% 32% 46%
2018 Max Muncy 152 12 0.272 16% 24% 0.395 0.616 48% 28% 44%

It’s unbelievable how similar their numbers are. Prior to 2018, Muncy was nothing like Hoskins, but so far in 2018, he’s a replica. Now, to be clear, I don’t believe he’s going to be as good as Hoskins long term, but there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to be valuable. We’ve all witnessed how Major League pitching and scouting catches up to young hitters as it has with Hoskins, but that shouldn’t steer you away from Muncy. Clearly, he’s talented and has adjusted his approach from his minor league days. There’s no reason to think he can’t adjust after the league catches up with him. The solid plate approach should soften his slumps and the flexibility defensively should keep him in the lineup. So the answer to my question is absolutely, and in an OBP league he’s a complete treasure.

Should we be waiting to draft starting pitchers?
Sure, no one cares about drafting now, it’s June! But we need to analyze data now and document it because come next March, we will forget about all the injuries that happened this year. I often see rankings in the offseason where experts will rank several starting pitchers inside the top 10 overall. I’ve been a fan of avoiding a pitcher in the first round and will often wait until rounds three, four, or five to grab my first SP. It’s not that they’re less valuable when healthy, especially in points leagues. In Rotisserie or head-to-head leagues, there’s no way I’m taking the plunge on pitchers in the first two rounds. There are two reasons: You can find value later in drafts and in shallow leagues on the wire, and the risk of injury is far greater as a pitcher than a hitter.

Case and point, take a look at the consensus top 30 starting pitchers drafted this year. Eleven of them have hit the disabled list and have or are currently missing a huge chunk of time. It’s not just the top 30 pitchers either. Nearly 30% of starting pitchers have hit the DL this year already. Maybe it just seems worse now because so many pitchers have been hit with the injury bug the last couple of weeks including Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Alex Reyes, Shohei Ohtani, Stephen Strasburg, Walker Buehler, the list goes on. Oh, and Folty left last night’s game early with a triceps injury. Check this out. Of the top 30 hitters drafted, only three have seen time on the DL and only one, Josh Donaldson, has missed more than three weeks.

Earlier in the article, I discussed four starting pitchers who have broken out yet none of them were drafted inside the top 30 for starting pitchers. Snell was outside the top 50 and Corbin and Pivetta were beyond that. Those are just a few examples, and sure, it’s somewhat of a crap-shoot, but wouldn’t you rather have drafted Bauer in the 10th round and grabbed Mookie Betts in the first round instead of Kershaw. Yes, hindsight is always 20/20, but going into a draft knowing the risks and odds against starting pitching will help you. Go into the draft and grab a surefire offensive talent and wait to get a high quantity mid-level pitching later.  

This is the mindset fantasy owners need to store for the future. We talk about how prospect growth isn’t linear, but it’s even more so with pitching prospects. Hitters are more likely to contribute right away, but pitching is a different story. Trevor Bauer had over 700 innings of MLB experience coming into 2018 and is breaking out now at age 27. Having a healthy pitcher like Max Scherzer is invaluable, but the odds of him staying healthy are lower than that of a top-tier hitter. It’s a strategy that may need to be more prevalent in the fantasy community. It will be interesting to see if this proves to be true or if fantasy owners continue to grab pitchers in the early rounds due to top-tier talent scarcity. Bookmark this article so you remember this in March of 2019.

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

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