Fantasy Baseball Risers and Fallers: Week 4
Welcome back to the weekly Risers and Fallers series here at FantasyPros! If you don’t think the juiced ball is back, just look at all the “sure-fire aces” getting blown up in recent outings. The likes of Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard, and Gerrit Cole have taken it on the chin this past week. Blake Snell and Jacob deGrom also, unfortunately, found their way onto the injured list. I’m no mathematician, but that’s seven of the top-tier starters either dealing with injuries or multiple poor outings. What does this mean? Well, first off, there’s a ton of hitters taking advantage of these struggling starters. Second, pitchers who can suppress home runs in this environment will be even more valuable. For hitters, I’m looking at improved zone swing percentages and contact rates, so let’s get to some of them right now.
Christian Yelich (OF – MIL)
Last year’s National League MVP cannot stop hitting homers. He mashed eight of them this past week while driving in 16 runs, good for a .960 ISO. He’s doing this with just a .154 BABIP in the last seven days. Yelich, who was a popular regression candidate, has now managed to carry a 30% home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB%) over his last 1,055 plate appearances. Maybe this is actually who he is? His average launch angle is up over 10 degrees and his ground-ball rate is down nearly 14%. This is scary for opposing pitchers, and while Yelich was drafted towards the back of the first round this year, I’d only put Mike Trout and Mookie Betts ahead of him from this point forward. That’s why he is here on the Risers list.
Yoan Moncada (2B/3B – CHW)
Moncada has hit .357 (10-for-28) with three homers and two steals in his last seven games. He’s always been able to hit the ball hard, showing up in the top-15 percent of hard-hit and barrel rate at Baseball Savant. However, the most significant improvement he’s made over the first 20 games this season is cutting his strikeout rate. In 2018, he struck out 33.4% of the time. He’s now down to 25.3%. He’s become aggressive and is swinging at more pitches in the zone. Last season, he was far too passive, which got himself into too many deep counts. As a result, his in-zone contact rate has increased by five percent.
Trevor Story, another power/speed threat, made similar adjustments in terms of his contact rate, which dropped his strikeout rate by nine percent. Of course, Story had Coors Field to aid his batting average and power, but Guaranteed Rate Field isn’t so bad either. If Moncada can maintain most of his contact gains this season, we might be looking at 25 homers, 15 steals, and a respectable batting average near .260 with upside.
Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS – SDP)
Tatis Jr. has not only proven he’s ready for The Show, but he’s putting up All-Star caliber numbers through the first month of the season. He hit .348 with one home run and three steals last week and is now up to six home runs on the year. He’s hitting the ball extremely hard with a 49.1% hard contact rate, per FanGraphs, so given his speed, an elevated BABIP is legitimate. A high strikeout rate is the only thing holding him back from an absolute breakout campaign. I have been more impressed with his plate discipline, which has essentially been league-average. While that might not seem like a ringing endorsement, he’s just 20 years old! I actually believe he should cut down on his strikeouts a bit based on his contact rates, which could boost his on-base percentage. Be ready for an adjustment period by opposing pitchers, but Tatis Jr. looks like a top-100 player this year.
Tyler Glasnow (SP – TB)
Glasnow has always been able to miss bats, but throwing enough strikes to succeed has been another story. In his last three starts, he has managed a 1.96 ERA with a 0.87 WHIP, 19 strikeouts, and just four walks. What’s changed? He’s throwing his curveball five percent more often at the expense of his fastball. This relatively minor pitch-mix change accounts for a slight improvement on his swinging-strike rate, but the biggest change is his first-pitch strike rate. He’s currently getting ahead of hitters 67.6% of the time (tied for 10th in MLB) compared to just 58.3% in 2017. That explains the huge decrease in his walk rate. It’s simple for me with Glasnow: If he can continue to get ahead of hitters and repeat his mechanics, he will succeed. He hasn’t shown anything early this season to make me think otherwise, so the breakout we’ve all been waiting for seems to be coming to fruition.
Bryce Harper (OF – PHI)
Wait, what? Harper was fine this past week, hitting .276 with a homer and five RBIs. He’s also sporting a .278 average with five home runs and 14 RBIs this season, so why is he on the Fallers list? I may be forecasting a little here, but this is what’s I’ve seen. He’s gotten by with a .362 BABIP, so we can expect his batting average to receive a reasonable drop. I tweeted out my concern with his contact rates earlier last week. Let’s look at his contact and strikeout rates over the last four seasons.
Keep in mind that we are only 21 games into the 2019 season, and maybe he’s pressing fresh off his huge contract. He’s also hitting the ball on the ground more often, but there’s again the caveat of small samples. He’s only put 51 balls into play, so let’s wait another couple of weeks to see how his batted-ball profile shakes out. The good news is he’s laying off pitches outside the zone and when he does make contact, it’s elite. In OBP leagues, you have absolutely nothing to worry about; he’ll continue to be a monster. But if these trends in his contact and strikeout rates continue, he’s closer to a .249 hitter than a .300 hitter.
Jesus Aguilar (1B – MIL)
There’s aren’t many hitters as cold as Aguilar right now, as he’s hitting just .136 with no home runs and five RBIs. Last year’s breakout hit 35 bombs with 108 RBIs in what proved to be one of the best lineups in all of baseball. It earned him a top-100 draft pick in this year’s fantasy drafts, but owners are growing weary. I absolutely know that he’s not this bad and a .180 BABIP is not sustainable. I see two issues with Aguilar’s profile early this season. First, he’s not hitting the ball as hard. He was in the top-78th percentile in 2018 and now is just in the 39th percentile around the likes of Victor Robles and Tucker Barnhart. Second, his contact on balls inside the zone is down five percent. The contending Brewers won’t have time to wait for Aguilar to right the ship. They have Eric Thames on the bench and Ryan Braun who can also play first base, so the leash is not likely that long. While Yelich has carried the team offensively, he has masked some struggles from the likes of Aguilar and Travis Shaw. Aguilar can break out of this slump and be 90% of what he was last year, but the loss of playing time is where my concerns lie.
Yu Darvish (SP – CHC)
With so many pitchers struggling early, I decided to go with Darvish here because I think many of the “aces” will find their way out. Darvish, on the other hand, is a different story. He sports a 5.96 ERA and a 1.72 WHIP through his first five starts of the season. He has not been able to throw strikes consistently and has just a 6.7% strikeout minus walk rate (K-BB%) that’s in the bottom 10 among qualified starters. Many analysts, myself included, were encouraged by his increased velocity this spring, and while he’s showed some improvement recently, he’s still down about 1.5 mph from the last two seasons. What’s more concerning is his 52.4% first-pitch strike rate with a zone rate (percentage of pitches thrown inside the zone) of 41.5%. His first-pitch strike rate is eight percent below league-average, which is a recipe for disaster. Darvish can still miss bats, but I am skeptical he can regain his control in short order and would cut bait in shallow mixed leagues.