Fantasy Baseball Risers and Fallers: Week 2
Welcome back to the risers and fallers weekly series. Still less than two weeks into the 2019 season, many fantasy owners are taking their proverbial victory laps while others are sulking as their studs start in a slump. I discussed avoiding overreactions last week, and I want to echo those thoughts once again. The sample sizes are simply too small to draw concrete conclusions. Of course, injuries are a different story. I won’t be including players in the fallers section who have landed on the injured list for obvious reasons. We know they have already lost value. I will, however, utilize important tools from Baseball Savant to capture early-season skills changes for hitters. I also will look into fastball velocities and pitch mix changes to identify possible improvements for pitchers. Let’s start with the risers.
Cody Bellinger (1B/OF – LAD)
How could I not discuss fantasy’s number one overall hitter through the first week and a half? All Bellinger has done is hit .455 with seven home runs and one steal while driving in an insane 18 runs through the first 11 games. After what some consider a sophomore slump, Bellinger is proving he’s a first-round talent. He’s produced an impressive 12.8% barrels per plate appearance (BRL/PA%) and hit over 50% of his batted balls over 95 mph. We already knew he could mash, but his plate discipline is on another level early this year. He’s swinging outside the zone less often, and his contact rates have jumped up. As a result, his strikeout rate is down 11.1% from 2018. If he can manage to maintain improved contact rates, Bellinger could provide first-round value and a huge profit for those who drafted him this offseason.
Ketel Marte (2B/SS/OF – ARI)
Marte was not sought after on draft day, going off the board after pick 220 overall. However, through the first 10 games, he is hitting .279 with three home runs, two steals, and 11 RBIs. The Diamondbacks even wised up and moved him up from sixth to second in the order on Saturday. This could be a huge boost for Marte, who would see more at-bats and potentially more stolen-base opportunities in the higher lineup slot. Marte has the speed to steal 20 bases given his 85th-percentile sprint speed. Since we are still in small sample size territory, one skill that trumps all others this early in the season is exit velocity. Marte’s maximum exit velocity this season is 114.4 mph, which currently ranks fourth behind only Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and J.D. Davis. This isn’t exactly new territory; Marte smacked a ball over 115 mph in 2018 and compiled 52 extra-base hits. He’s ready to take his power to the next level.
Mike Clevinger (SP – CLE)
Clevinger has absolutely dominated in his two starts, going 12 IP with 22 strikeouts and zero earned runs. The key to Clevinger’s success has been the usage of his slider but maybe more importantly, his fastball velocity.
Clevinger has increased his average fastball velocity by nearly three mph since the start of 2017. As a result, his strikeout rate has also risen. Not shown in the graph is Clevinger’s start on Sunday, when he averaged 96 mph. His fastball was largely considered to be a minus (negative) pitch, but he’s proving the pundits wrong. His slider might still be his best pitch, but if he can maintain 95+ mph and a double-digit swinging-strike rate on his fastball, he could finish inside the top-10 starting pitchers for 2019. Note: Clevinger left his start on Sunday with lower back tightness but expects to make his next start. Monitor this item going forward.
Matt Boyd (SP – DET)
Boyd has been a monster in the strikeout department through his first two starts, setting down 23 batters in just 11.1 innings via the punchout. Where did this come from? Well, he has a devastating slider with a 17.7 pitch value, per FanGraphs, that ranked fifth among qualified starters last year. Naturally, he’s increased its usage in his opening starts by five percent. In addition, he’s increased its overall movement by two inches and lowered its velocity. The diminished speed will keep hitters off balance against his below-average fastball. Whether or not Boyd becomes this year’s Patrick Corbin remains to be seen, but he’s certainly using a similar formula for success.
Charlie Blackmon (OF – COL)
Prior to Sunday night’s game, Blackmon carried a .263 batting average with one steal to start the season. While a 2-for-3 showing elevated his average to .300, he has yet to homer while scoring just three runs in 11 games as the Rockies’ leadoff hitter. It’s less about the production and more about his poor Statcast metrics. Through Saturday, Blackmon had put 31 balls in play, but only seven of them went at least 95 mph. His average exit velocity is just 80.9. Among hitters with at least 20 batted balls, Blackmon is third from the bottom with only Billy Hamilton (78.9 mph) and Ender Inciarte (78.1 mph) behind him. He’s not exactly a Statcast darling, but his lack of hard contact is concerning even with Coors Field to fall back on. I also don’t see significant stolen-base contributions from Blackmon this year given the fact that his sprint speed is nearing league-average.
Jurickson Profar (1B/2B/SS/3B – OAK)
Profar is hitting just .106 with no home runs and one steal through the first 12 games of the season. To be fair, his .128 BABIP will certainly rise, but I’m not so confident his 20-homer power will return. Profar has yet to hit a ball over 100 mph this year. He’s putting the ball in the air 41% of the time, and nearly one-third of those balls were infield flys. Popups have been an issue for Profar throughout his career with a 12.9% career IFFB rate. In addition to his early weak contact, his swinging-strike rate has increased. Due to Profar’s high infield fly rate and average speed, he’s not likely to carry a high BABIP. Profar’s best asset might end up being his multi-position eligibility. I have a hard time envisioning a finish inside the top-200 overall in standard roto leagues.
Brandon Nimmo (OF – NYM)
After last season’s breakout, 2019 could not have greeted Nimmo any worse. He’s hitting just .103 with zero home runs, zero stolen bases, and 17 strikeouts (47.2 K%) in 36 plate appearances. Last year’s .263 batting average was buoyed by a .351 BABIP. His contact rates this season are downright depressing, putting bat to ball on just 66.7% of swings on pitches inside the zone. For context, the lowest zone-contact rate last season belongs to Gallo at 72%. Yeah, it’s been a rough go for Nimmo. In the middle of 2018, he went through a similar stretch and came out of it. So there’s hope, but you are likely to find better options in shallow 10-team leagues, especially if he starts losing time to Keon Broxton.
Miles Mikolas (SP – STL)
The Cardinals starter has been roughed up in his first two starts, giving up eight earned runs, three walks, and four homers. Mikolas twirled pristine ratios last year thanks to a minuscule 3.6% walk rate and a .279 BABIP. This year, he’s had some trouble finding the zone and isn’t getting hitters to chase pitches off the plate. This is a huge concern, as he already struggled to get hitters out via the strikeout last year. What’s more, his fastball velocity is down one mph in the early going. If he can’t maintain a strikeout rate between 18 and 20%, he won’t be useful — let alone a top-30 starter — in shallow mixed leagues. I’m dropping him about 10 spots in my starting pitcher rankings but not cutting bait just yet.