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Negative Regression Candidates (2019 Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
Mar 21, 2019

Jack Flaherty’s solid numbers from his 2018 campaign may not be sustainable

We’re always looking for the breakout candidates and players we think will improve based on certain metrics, health, new team, etc. What about the players that broke out or performed at a high level? When do we consider the growth sustainable and when can we expect negative regression?

Some metrics I look at for hitters who may have performed over their heads are BABIP, HR/FB, O-Swing (swings outside the zone), and Z-Contact (contact on pitches inside the zone). I will use a player’s batted ball profile and expected stats to figure out if the player can sustain the level he performed at the previous year. For pitchers, it’s much of the same, but I’ll include left on base percentage (LOB%) and zone percentage (Percentage of pitches inside the zone). As the 2019 season is on the horizon, let’s dive into some regression candidates.

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Javier Baez (2B/SS/3B – CHC)
Expecting regression after a career year is not exactly going out on a limb, but Baez is drafted as though owners are expecting a similar output in 2019. Baez defies logic in terms of plate discipline and aggressiveness. A notorious free-swinger, Baez actually increased his swing rate and O-Swing (swings outside the zone) in 2018. I compiled data since 2002 (when plate discipline metrics were first measured) to find hitters with comparable aggressive approaches. The parameters I used were greater than 40% O-Swing, greater than 55% Swing%, and greater than 16% swinging strike rate. Here is what I came up with.

Season Name Team Regressed Next Season
2007 Delmon Young Devil Rays No
2011 Miguel Olivo Mariners Yes
2012 Josh Hamilton Rangers Yes
2013 Josh Hamilton Angels Yes
2014 Marlon Byrd Phillies Yes
2015 Avisail Garcia White Sox Yes
2015 Marlon Byrd Reds & Giants Yes
2016 Jonathan Schoop Orioles No
2016 Yasmany Tomas Diamondbacks Yes
2017 Javier Baez Cubs No
2017 Avisail Garcia White Sox Yes
2018 Javier Baez Cubs ???

This is an interesting list that does include some impressively valuable seasons, like Baez’s 2018 season and Josh Hamilton’s 2013 season. However, eight out the 11 regressed in the following season or 73%. What’s also notable is the fact that a season with the parameters mentioned above has only happened 12 times in the last 17 seasons, so it’s extremely rare.

The likes of Baez, Hamilton, and Garcia are all on there twice. Delmon Young did not regress in 2008, but his wRC+ was still below 100. Schoop was in a similar situation to Baez in that he did not regress after making the list in 2016, but look what happened in 2018. His value completely plummeted.

This type of aggressive approach and extremely poor plate discipline is difficult to sustain. Baez has shown us he’s a bit of a unicorn, but if I’m a betting man, I’d bet on moderate regression, if not more.

Jose Peraza (2B/SS – CIN) 
I actually like Peraza for 2019. His insanely high contact rate is a huge boost for his batting average and stolen base opportunities. Where I believe Peraza will regress is in the power department. He hit just five home runs in 518 plate appearances in 2017, then blasted 14 last year in 683 plate appearances. Many of the projection systems such as ATC and THE BAT are projecting a repeat in power production in fewer plate appearances. I think this is a mistake.

Peraza finished in the bottom three percent in terms of average exit velocity last year. Of batters with at least 200 batted balls last year, Peraza finished 373rd out of 381 in average line drive/fly ball (LD/FB) exit velocity. xStats pegged Peraza for just 8.8 expected home runs last year, meaning Peraza was fortunate to reach double-digits, let alone 14. He is not a powerful hitter, that’s obvious, so he relies heavily on pulled fly balls to hit homers, which he did on nine of 14 home runs last year. However, his hard contact on pulled fly balls in 2018 dropped 12.5% from 2017.

My second concern with Peraza is where he will bat in the order. Peraza’s high contact approach and speed makes him a decent candidate to bat leadoff, but the Reds have other options, including Jesse Winker given his high contact and plate approach. The Reds have used Winker in the leadoff spot this spring against right-handed pitchers. If there is some type of platoon at the leadoff spot, Peraza could be dropped to seventh or eighth with Votto sliding into the two spot.

The point is, Peraza is unlikely to end the season in the top 20 for plate appearances like he did last year. He is more a six-to-nine home run hitter rather than a 15-homer guy. Since I don’t expect much power, I’d rather go after Victor Robles or Rougned Odor for more balanced power and speed.  

Odubel Herrera (OF – PHI)
Herrera hit a career-best 22 home runs in 2018. He’s not getting a ton of love by the fantasy community going just after pick 200, but in my opinion, even that is too high.

Back in 2015, Herrera hit .286 with 15 homers to go along with 25 stolen bases. That is extremely nice overall production. However, Herrera’s stolen base total the two seasons since is only 13 with a poor success rate of 65%. Ok, this isn’t an overrated post but let’s take a look at Herrera’s 30-game rolling average graph.

Yikes. Herrera compiled 75% of his stats in the first 50 games, yet his power metrics were absolutely atrocious. Based on the poor metrics, I pegged Herrera as a major fade last year just before the All-Star break. His power output was very lucky in 2018.

Consider this for a minute, per Statcast in 2018, players homered on 67% of batted balls that were barreled (HR/BRL%), Herrera, on the other hand, compiled more home runs than barrels, or 105%. On his 21 Barrels, Herrera should have hit just 14 home runs, rather than 22. His expected home runs per xStats match that number.

I can see the value of a player hitting 20+ homers while stealing five to eight bases. However, I have a difficult time believing Herrera can do it again. I’d argue that not only will Herrera underperform his current 210 ADP, but he will also finish outside of the top-300 overall.

Clayton Kershaw (SP – LAD)
Clayton Kershaw might end up being the best pitcher of this generation. He’s also struggled to stay healthy the last couple years and is priced with regression in mind. In January, he was going off the board as the ninth starting pitcher between Blake Snell and Trevor Bauer per FantasyPros’ consensus ADP. However, since the news coming out that he is likely to miss the start of the season, he’s dropped all the way down to the 19th starting pitcher. In addition to injuries, Kershaw has lost velocity on his fastball and has become extremely more reliant on his slider and curveball.

Simply put, his skills are on the decline. They have been for the last two seasons. Take a look at Kershaw’s skill-based ratios since 2016.

Season K/BB% Z-Contact% SwStr% SIERA
2016 29.6% 80.3% 15.3% 2.41
2017 25.3% 82.4% 14.1% 3.05
2018 19.4% 87.2% 11.0% 3.45

These metrics show Kershaw trending from literally the best pitcher in baseball to league-average. Now, Kershaw is anything but league-average, he’s great. But if you remember in 2017, he had a home run issue with a career-high 1.18 HR/FB. That’s not a death knell by my means, and Kershaw actually curbed the home run rate to just 0.95 last year. I’m concerned his increased contact and hard-hit rate will once again bump the home run rate closer to 1.1-1.2 per nine innings. 

Sure, the breaking pitches are still very effective, but he’s already throwing them over 58% of the time! Is he maxed out? Can he increase the number of breaking balls while still remaining as effective?

How about injuries? He’s already likely to start the season on the injured list. There are far too many questions with Kershaw for me to draft him as a fantasy ace. Regression isn’t coming, it’s already here.

Jack Flaherty (SP – STL) 
The market is high on Flaherty and for good reason. He’s just 23 years old, finished with a 3.34 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, and 10.85 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s talented; there’s no doubt, and he’s throwing fire this spring, but here’s what I see. Flaherty skated by on a 9.5% walk rate, a .257 BABIP, and a 79.3% strand rate.

I ran a filter for starting pitchers who throw at least 140 innings with a 9.0%+ BB%, sub-.265 BABIP, and a 79%+ strand (LOB) rate. In 2018, only Blake Snell and Jack Flaherty qualified. We all know that as good as Snell was, he has nowhere to go but down (or up in terms of his ratios). Since 2013, only five other pitchers qualified under the parameters above, including Gio Gonzalez and Lance Lynn in 2017, Dan Straily (2016), Hector Santiago (2015), and Yu Darvish (2013). I ran each pitcher’s numbers the following season to see if/how much each pitcher regressed and here are the differences.

Change in ERA Change in WHIP Change in BABIP Change in LOB%
+0.89 +0.19 +0.052 -6.7%

Not one of the pitchers since 2013 with similar metrics improved or even broke even on their numbers the following season. The skills and talent level of Flaherty matches more closely to 2013 Yu Darvish than 2017 Gio Gonzalez, but regression is coming nonetheless. Applying these averages to Flaherty’s 2018 numbers, we get an ERA of 4.23 and a WHIP of 1.30. Maybe that seems harsh, and I do agree.

If we see only half the regression of these five pitchers for Flaherty, we are talking about a pitcher with a 3.78 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP. That seems much more likely and I believe he will be able to suppress BABIP a little bit given a high strikeout rate. Where I don’t expect improvement is in his walk rate given his 57.2% first-pitch strike rate and a 41.8% zone rate. Those are well below league average and he doesn’t induce swings outside the zone at an above-average clip.

His value has inflated all the way to the 15th starting pitcher off the board. Last year, he finished as the 23rd starting pitcher. The ADP is calling for positive regression, but I see the opposite.

Trevor Williams (SP – PIT)
Williams might seem like an obvious regression candidate with his extremely low strikeout rate and near league-average walk rate. However, he actually did a very good job at inducing weak contact (over 20% of the time) and limiting hard contact (under 30% of the time). His ability to induce weak contact at a relatively consistent rate is a skill that suppresses BABIP. Therefore, his .261 BABIP from 2018, while low, is not completely out of bounds. He’s managed to carry a .279 BABIP for his career.

Now that I’ve laid the groundwork for why Williams is actually a very serviceable Major League pitcher, let me tell you why his regression in terms of fantasy value is inevitable. Among qualified starters in 2018, Williams had the fifth-lowest K/BB% at just 10.1%. Of all qualified starters under 11% K/BB%, Williams had the highest strand or left-on-base rate (LOB%). I’d bet against Williams stranding a high percentage of runners in 2019 given the high contact rates.

Williams was able to suppress home runs for the second straight season under 0.85 HR/9. He was able to keep balls in the yard despite an increase in fly ball rate to 37.5%, up 6.2% from 2017. Williams managed just an eight percent home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB). He also gave up less infield fly balls, meaning there were more valuable balls hit in the air against him in 2018.

This is a roundabout way of saying, Williams was lucky to give up so few home runs. Not only that, but his BABIP on fly balls was just .081, nearly 70 points lower than his career BABIP on fly balls. An increase in home run rate and BABIP with a decrease in LOB% means significant regression is in order. Let’s not forget that the Pirates are not likely to be a very good team, so wins may also be a struggle for the 26-year-old right-hander.

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

Draft Prep, Featured, MLB