Fantasy Baseball Risers and Fallers: Week 13
Welcome back to another fantasy baseball edition of the risers and fallers series. Last week I highlighted Scott Kingery, Ketel Marte, Ramon Laureano, and Yordan Alvarez among others, and they have continued their torrid pace. All of them managed a .400+ wOBA over the last two weeks, and Marte somehow posted a .696 weighted on-base average (wOBA) this past week! Let’s hope he’s OK after leaving Friday night’s game with a groin cramp. Let’s dive into some players on the rise and others who have struggled recently.
Josh Donaldson (3B – ATL)
When healthy, few hitters have been as productive as Donaldson. Over the last week, he hit .375 with three home runs, a .495 wOBA, and just an 11.5% strikeout rate. Prior to 2018, when he missed significant time to injuries, Donaldson averaged 37 home runs per season with HR/FB rates typically over 20%. Well, he’s back this year with a career-best 93.1 MPH average exit velocity and a 14.8% barrel rate. My concerns coming into the season were two-fold: health and his declining contact skills. Health hasn’t been an issue so far, but his strikeout rate has once again increased (25.9%).
You can see why my concerns were validated through most of the first half. His strikeout rate was hovering around 30% while his zone contact rate dipped to about 70% (league average is 84.9%). Over the last 15 or so games, he’s made marked improvements in his zone contact and thus lowered his strikeout rate. To me, the most important metric listed above is his declining strikeout rate this past week. If that continues, expect elite offensive production from Donaldson the rest of the season.
Nomar Mazara (OF – TEX)
Mazara has finally woken up, hitting three home runs with four multi-hit games last week. He’s also crushing the ball, as evidenced by a .563 xwOBA over the last seven days. If you want visual evidence, here’s Mazara demolishing the longest home run hit this season. Let’s remember that he is still just 24 years old, and anybody who can hit the ball that hard and that far needs to be monitored.
He’s also been a little bit unlucky based on his xwOBA and 25 barrels hit. Prior to this season, Mazara hit 60 home runs on 88 barrels for a home run per barrel rate (HR/BRL%) of 68.1%. This season, he has hit just 12 homers on 25 barrels for a 48% HR/BRL. I’d expect the home runs to start piling up now that we are entering summer in Arlington, Texas.
Jorge Soler (OF – KC)
Soler has been mashing over his last 15 games, hitting five home runs with a .393 wOBA. Baseball Savant agrees with the results, as Soler clocks in with a .497 xwOBA last week. Are we finally witnessing the breakout for the 27-year-old former top prospect? Just before the start of the 2019 season, I wrote about some potential power breakouts using spring training ground-out/air-out ratios (GO/AO%). Not only has he increased his fly-ball rate to just over 40% (36.8% career), but the quality of the balls he’s hitting in the air is fantastic. The top chart is his launch angle chart from 2018, and the bottom chart is his launch angle chart thus far in 2019.
You can see that Soler has tightened up his batted balls in terms of launch angle. Almost all of his hits are between 0 and 35 degrees. He’s cut down on the pop-ups and weak ground balls at the extreme of the launch angle spectrum. So while his average launch angle isn’t necessarily higher than previous seasons, he’s hitting more balls in the “sweet spot.” It’s the main reason his home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB%) is a career-high 26.3%. He still strikes out too often to hit for a high batting average, but given the increase in zone contact rate by five percent, I’d expect something close to a 25% strikeout rate for Soler going forward.
Pete Alonso (1B – NYM)
Well, duh, here’s an obvious riser. I just thought Alonso deserved a shoutout for his stellar first-half performance. He’s already broken the Mets’ single-season rookie home run record, and we aren’t even through June yet! His 27 home runs tie Aaron Judge for the second most by a rookie before July 1, and he still has all of this week to reach and surpass Mark McGwire’s 28. Nothing about what Alonso has done is fluky. He’s in the top five percent of MLB in barrel%, wOBA, xwOBA, and xSLG. Even his batting average is due for some positive regression given his .329 xBABIP compared to his actual .294 BABIP. This is less about Alonso as a riser and more of a “he’s great” blurb.
Walker Buehler (SP – LAD)
Yes, Buehler’s also great. We all know that. He was regularly drafted inside the top 15 for starting pitchers in 2019. However, he’s been otherworldly over his last three starts with a 0.78 ERA, 0.52 WHIP, and an amazing 31 strikeouts in 23.1 innings pitched. Buehler’s success starts with his four-seam fastball. Over his last four starts, he’s throwing it over 60% of the time and averaging nearly 97 mph on the pitch. Let’s look at the location of his four-seamer when ahead on the count.
That’s beautiful! He keeps it up in and out of the zone to generate swings and misses. This is a huge reason his swinging-strike rate and strikeout rates have risen over the last month. Much like other successful power pitchers like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Buehler can pitch up in the zone and get away with it. There’s certainly a risk with this strategy giving up home runs, but fly balls and pop-ups keep BABIPs low, and changing the batter’s eye level will generate more strikeouts. We may be witnessing Buehler’s huge breakout. He might end up as high as a top-five starting pitcher come draft season next year.
Zach Eflin (SP – PHI)
Eflin was largely forgotten on draft day, taken outside of pick 300 and lightly owned in 12-team mixed leagues in April. Over the last three starts, he’s managed a very solid 2.21 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 22 strikeouts in 20.1 innings. He combines a 94 mph fastball with an 87 mph cutter (some classify it as a hard slider), which he throws nearly 80% of the time combined. Those are his best two pitches, and he’s gone to the extreme by throwing them nearly 90% of the time in his last three outings.
However, Eflin’s success is not so much with strikeouts but with weak contact. Both pitches generate below-average hard contact and induce infield fly balls (automatic outs). He’s limited home runs with a HR/FB rate under six percent between the two pitches (league average is 14.9%). Unfortunately, his remaining arsenal is not great, so his pitch-mix adjustment makes sense. I don’t believe Eflin has the upside of some elite strikeout pitchers, but he’s a great SP3 in deep leagues or SP4/SP5 in 10- to 12-team mixed leagues.
Harrison Bader (OF – STL)
Bader has just one hit since June 14. That’s over the course of 33 plate appearances. On the season, his batting average is down to .209 and while his added patience at the plate has led to more walks, his strikeout rate is 27.9%. In addition to the increased walk rate, the only difference between 2018 and 2019 for Bader is his BABIP. After an almost an unsustainable .356 BABIP last year, It’s down to .273. Typically hitters with the speed that Bader possesses (top five percent) carry elevated BABIPs. This is not the case, as Bader has increased his fly-ball and pop-up rates. Fly balls, of course, are great for home runs but not for BABIP. Home runs are hit on hard contact, and Bader is currently in the bottom third of the league in hard-hit rate. Overall, his profile will not lead to a high batting average or many home runs. Unless his quality of contact or batted-ball profile improves, I’m moving on from Bader.
Eugenio Suarez (3B – CIN)
Suarez hit just .172 with one home run and a .205 wOBA over the last week. His strikeout rate in June is 32.1% while his walk rate is down to 6.2%. Suarez’s quality of contact has taken a dip this season, as his average exit velocity is down two MPH from 2018. While his barrel rate remains strong, his weak contact has skyrocketed thanks to a huge jump in infield fly balls (IFFB%) up from just 2.8% up to 13.0%. For reference, he hit just four in all of 2018 and has already hit 10 pop-ups in about half the at-bats. In addition, his contact rate on pitches inside the zone has slipped to one of its lowest points in three years. Suarez struggled with strikeouts in the second half of 2018, so it’s looking more like the norm than a fluke. I believe he’s a very good hitter who can bust out of this slump, but I’d monitor his contact rates closely going forward.
Jose Quintana (SP – CHC)
Quintana has been crushed over his last three outings to an 8.36 ERA and 2.07 WHIP, and he has given up more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight). Nothing looks out of whack on the surface. His velocity is fine and his first-pitch-strike rate is good, but he’s throwing more sinkers. Twelve percent more sinkers, actually. The reason he’s utilizing more of them is that his four-seam fastball has gotten demolished to a 135 wRC+ compared to his 88 wRC+ over the previous three seasons. Hitters are teeing off with a 33.3% line-drive rate and a 16.7% HR/FB rate. Over the last three seasons, it’s lost about 2.5 inches of movement, and his fastball’s spin rate has steadily declined. It’s currently below 2,000 RPMs for the first time in his career. Formerly Quintana’s best pitch, averaging 16.7 Pitch Value (PV) per FanGraphs, it’s currently down to -2.3 PV for this season. While pitch value is a cumulative statistic, he’s trending in the wrong direction. If Quintana doesn’t get his fastball back, he’ll be useless in terms of fantasy.