Positive & Negative Regression Candidates (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Week five — we are chugging along! The puzzle we began creating at the start of the season is about to add a couple more pieces to it. We are just shy of adding walk rate into our sample stabilization, needing about 10-15 more plate appearances from everyday hitters and one more start from rotation mainstays. There are also nearly 70 hitters who can lay claim to a stable ground-ball and fly-ball rate. Similarly, there are some pitchers who have allowed 70 balls in play, so they are planting their flag in those rates as well.
Let’s not forget that the data that already meant something (hitter exit velocity, pitcher velocity, pitcher repertoire, and strikeout rate) stabilized even further over the past week. So with a focus on these sets of data, let’s dive into my favorite regression candidates that have not been covered in previous iterations. I’m feeling cheery, so let’s emphasize a few more positive regression guys. This time you can attribute it to the 75-degree weather in Chicago.
Positive Regression Candidates
Travis Shaw (2B/3B – MIL)
Shaw is off to a poor start this year, slashing .182/.276/.286. Much of this is fueled by a seemingly unlucky .255 BABIP in the early going. He had a .242 BABIP last year, so maybe it isn’t as unlucky as we think. While BABIP hasn’t stabilized yet, strikeout rate has, and his 32.2% strikeout rate is over 13 percent worse than last year. The increase in K rate is not due to how often he is swinging, but how often he is whiffing. He is swinging and missing more on every type of pitch.
While K rate has stabilized, the sample is still small enough to suggest that this is a blip on the radar. For example, he is striking out much more against lefties than righties (per FanGraphs), but his strikeout rate based on handedness is about equal for his career. He is seeing just nine percent of pitches just off the outside part of the plate, compared to 18 percent last year. Despite seeing fewer outside pitches, he is hitting the ball to the opposite field over 10 percent more this year, which suggests his timing is off. I’m betting on Shaw adjusting to the types of pitches he is seeing and bringing that K rate down to historical levels by working on his timing. His exit velocity, per Baseball Savant, is nearly the same as last year, so an uptick in performance is likely. He is an excellent buy-low candidate.
Jesse Winker (OF – CIN)
Due to the nature of the small sample, Winker’s BABIP is just .109. On a more concerning level, his K rate is up almost four percent, and his walk rate is down from 14.7 to 5.8 — not exactly a recipe for success. He is swinging more overall, which typically results in lower walk rates and higher K rates. Like Shaw, his whiff rates on each pitch are up.
Now for the good stuff. His exit velocity is in the 72nd percentile, a slight boost from 2018. While it hasn’t stabilized, his batted ball profile is about the same as last year. Despite hitting .172/.232/.453, his expected slash line is .259/.342/.482, per Baseball Savant. I’m betting on Winker to benefit from regression to the mean by swinging less, resulting in his numbers falling more in line with what you imagined on draft day. He’s another excellent buy-low candidate, especially with him currently hitting lower in the order.
Yasiel Puig (OF – CIN)
Another player, another Cincy outfielder. Puig’s paltry 18 wRC+ is an absolute joke and will no doubt be corrected sooner rather than later. Eno Sarris of The Athletic wrote a fantastic article on players who are pressing with a new team, and Puig is the poster boy. To break it down further, he is swinging at 12 percent more balls outside the zone, and 10 percent more strikes. Making things worse, he is whiffing on 16.9% of pitches, 6.4% more than last year. Pitchers are inducing weaker contact as a result of all this swinging; his exit velocity is 1.3 miles per hour worse than last year despite seeing pitch types consistent with last year.
Sarris found that players stop pressing about a month into the season, and their surface-level stats were much better in May onward. Puig’s quantitative sabermetrics currently don’t show signs of a turnaround, but I am banking on the volatile Puig to rebound in a couple of weeks and have a torrid summer — similar to what Matt Carpenter did last year.
Yonder Alonso (1B – CWS)
Alonso is not doing anything wrong, even though he is hitting .192 on the heels of a .193 BABIP. He’s been especially unlucky against righties, hitting just .154 against them. For context, he has batted .272 against them for his career. What’s even more encouraging is that his walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down to an identical 15.1 percent. His hard-hit rate (defined by Baseball Savant as a ball hit at least 95 mph) ranks in the 91st percentile, up almost 16 percent from last year. I expect all of his fantasy numbers to stabilize, resulting in 25+ homers with a .260 average. We can also anticipate solid counting stats hitting in the cleanup spot, especially in the RBI department, with Yoan Moncada breaking out.
Miles Mikolas (SP – STL)
We probably need to talk about pitchers, right? Mikolas, while not a strikeout pitcher (at least based on last year), has seen a 1.8 mph drop in velocity on his fastball. Sitting right at 93, it teeters on the brink of how hittable a fastball is. If a fastball sits between 91-93 mph, it’s much more hittable than when it sits at 94. Mikolas’s fastball velocity seems to be volatile, so I’m expecting an eventual uptick towards 94 by the All-Star break.
Being in a positive frame of mind, I’m also expecting his 14.3% HR/FB rate to regress to the league mean of 10 percent, especially when he stops throwing his sinker so much. Sinkers are most susceptible to the launch angle revolution, so once he adjusts back to changing out his sinker for his slider, we should see similar results to last year. Hold Mikolas — don’t listen to the doubters telling you to cut bait just yet.
Negative Regression Candidates
Brandon Lowe (2B/OF – TB)
Lowe’s numbers are off the charts this year; he is slashing .278/.326/.595. Sorry to pour cold water on it, but his .364 BABIP, much like the phrase “living your best life,” isn’t here to stay. His expected average is .228, and his expected slugging is .461. He is striking out nine percent more (34.9) than he was in 2018, and he is walking 3.8 percent less (7.0). While Lowe has shown a propensity to hit the ball hard, the rest of his peripherals don’t match up to what we can expect going forward. Once he starts seeing more offspeed pitches (his weakness), I expect a .250 batting average with 20-25 homers. If you can find an owner in your league that expects 30 homers and a .275 average, make the trade it before it’s too late.
Wil Myers (3B/OF – SD)
Much like Lowe, Myers has an incredible BABIP despite walking less (6.2%) and whiffing more (30.9%). He is slashing .303/.346/.553, but his current profile results in an expected .267 average and .503 slugging percentage. He is swinging at fewer balls outside the zone but is making less contact on both balls and strikes, resulting in an uptick in swinging-strike rate. There is no doubt that Myers can go 20/20, but nothing in this profile suggests he can maintain a .300 average. For context, the last time he hit above .259 was in 2013, when he played half a season. He’s another great sell-high candidate, especially given his injury history.
Christian Walker (1B – ARI)
The NL’s slightly smaller version of Daniel Vogelbach, Walker has an incredible .656 slugging percentage through 80 plate appearances. He’s gotten there through an insane 95.9-mph average exit velocity and a hard-hit rate in MLB’s 99th percentile. He is swinging less, so these upticks support the breakout.
There are also some sour grapes involved, mainly in the form of his plate discipline and his unsustainable 36.8% HR/FB rate. His swinging-strike percentage is 15.9, and he has only made contact 65.7% of the time. While this particular set of data has not yet stabilized, they are in line with his historic metrics. To date, he is seeing fastballs 55% of the time, and feasting on them with a 5.1 pVal already. Once pitchers adjust, I expect his strikeout rate to stay near 30% with a dramatic decline in his average. Ride the wave until the sun sets.
Reynaldo Lopez (SP – CWS)
After a few poor outings to start the season in Kansas City and Chicago, most people in the fantasy community were chalking up Lopez’s poor start to him not enjoying the cold weather in April. Then he gave up eight runs in Tampa in his next start, and people started falling off the bandwagon. He has rebounded with two decent starts since then, both against subpar competition (the Royals and Tigers). His average fastball velocity is down a tick and a half (94 mph), despite being closer to 95 in his last outing. It appears that he is going through a dead arm period, as he was sitting at 97 last April through June, and then fell off to 95 by the time the season ended. Even if we continue to see him sit between 94-95, he is nowhere near last year.
His fastball, a net positive in 2018, is already at a -7.2 pVal. The scary thought is that his K rate is actually up. When the underlying metrics stabilize, he’ll be lucky to reach the upper teens in strikeout rate by the end of the year. Dan Richards of Pitcher List discussed the best stat that predicts future performance for pitchers, and Lopez’s 5.41 SIERA is something I’m staying away from.