Positive and Negative Regression Candidates (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Maybe it was for simplicity. Maybe it was laziness. Whatever it was, it is time to stop grouping regression candidates into just “positive” and “negative.” Players have personality, so let’s give this column one too. This week, I’ll look at the beasts, the lumberjacks, the Paul Bunyans of the world. I’ll also examine some top-tier aces who should see positive regression sooner rather than later, as well as one who has painted a mirage.
J.D. Martinez (DH/OF – BOS)
Martinez has been incredibly unlucky since the All-Star break, posting a .170 average on the heels of a .176 BABIP. Woof. Much like a high school boy who got rejected asking out the most popular girl in school, he hasn’t deserved it. He has posted a 91.6 mph average exit velocity over that span, including a 95 mph exit velo on flies and liners. Nothing is wrong with him.
Truly, Martinez has been unlucky the entire year. After going yard Monday, his .575 xSLG is 60 percentage points above his actual slugging percentage. His .287 batting average also falls well short of his .308 xBA. His .404 xwOBA is in MLB’s top three percent. Want more stats? Me too. His 88.4% contact rate on pitches in the zone is remarkable, and his 12% swinging-strike rate is the lowest it’s been since 2012. Martinez has a clear path to being a top-three fantasy player for the rest of the year. I would look to trade a potential top-15 player like Aaron Judge in exchange for the four-category star.
Joey Gallo (1B/OF – TEX)
Much like Martinez, Gallo has had a rough start to the unofficial second half. Hitting an even .100 with a ridiculous .091 BABIP, we can certainly say that better times are ahead for the stereotypical force of power. While Gallo only has eight flies and liners from July 11-21, his 97.1 mph average exit velocity is right in line with what he did earlier in the season. Two of these were 105+ miles per hour off of household names Ryan Pressly and Gerrit Cole (we’ll get to him later). The oblique isn’t bothering him.
Gallo’s plate discipline will always be a problem, and it’s emphasized in the 10 contests since the All-Star Game. He is making contact on balls out of the zone just 22% of the time and strikes just 71% of the time. While Gallo makes contact at one of the worst rates in the league (60% in 2019), he should positively regress back to this mean, as should his second-half 25% swinging-strike rate. It might be worth asking the Gallo owner in your league what it would take to get him.
Pete Alonso (1B – NYM)
Alonso is Gallo-esque, and the brute archetype is evident in his profile. You can basically change the stats slightly in Gallo’s paragraph and apply it here. Alonso has the worst BABIP in baseball since the All-Star Game – an astonishing .056! Much like the two guys already discussed, Alonso is averaging 97 mph off the bat for flies and liners, and 96.2 mph overall across 21 batted balls. This includes three separate balls destroyed off Madison Bumgarner. Unfortunately, he didn’t have to get any of them out of the ocean.
His swinging-strike rate (18% in this timeframe) is above his season’s 12% rate, and his contact on pitches in the zone is down as a result. This is small-sample noise, but the owner in your league may think Alonso is suffering a Home Run Derby curse. Whatever you need to say to pull off a trade for the runaway NL Rookie of the Year.
Tyler O’Neill (OF – STL)
Alonso and O’Neill are in a competitive battle for who is most yoked. However, their batted-ball profiles could not be further apart. O’Neill has a paltry 83.8 mph average exit velocity on all batted balls in 11 games since the All-Star break and just 89 moh on flies and liners. These stats, in combination with his 28.6% strikeout rate and zero walks, are a cause for concern. Despite all this, he has a 156 wRC+ due to .385 BABIP and .333 ISO.
This is clearly unsustainable. When Marcell Ozuna returns from a finger injury shortly, O’Neill’s playing time will be in jeopardy. You might be salivating at his surface stats, but there’s not much under it.
Gerrit Cole (SP – HOU)
I wrote about Cole earlier in the year, and it appeared that his streak of poor luck was back again. In his first start since the All-Star Game, he gave up four runs over six innings at Globe Life Park despite amassing 13 strikeouts. He has since, however, stymied the Angels and A’s to run one each in his following starts. Given his 35 Ks in these outings, Cole’s 2,70 ERA in this short span should be even lower as judged by his 1.80 xFIP, which factors in the league-average home run rate. Given that Cole had a 50% HR/FB rate in the first two turns, we can expect him to regress to the mean. This rabbit ball needs to go.
To date, Cole’s luck has smoothed over, as seen by his 3.03 ERA, 2.81 SIERA, and 2.57 xFIP. Yes, the 21 homers allowed are a cause for concern, but homers are up all over the board. You don’t have to look further than his teammate, Justin Verlander, who leads the league in dingers allowed. Both of these aces have shown that you can succeed while allowing homers, mainly by minimizing walks and striking out a ton of batters. My bet is that Cole beats all the publicly available projection systems on FanGraphs in ERA (low of 3.10) and K-rate (13.02).
Mike Clevinger (SP – CLE)
Clevinger has regained his early-season magic, striking out 25 batters over his first three starts since the All-Star break. However, his 3.61 FIP shows that he has gotten a bit lucky in terms of a 2.50 ERA in those appearances. The nail on the head is in the form of his strand rate; he has left an astounding 95% of runners on base. That simply won’t keep up. On the year, Clevinger’s 73.7% strand rate is in line with the norm and around six percent lower than in his previous two seasons over 321.2 innings. This may have simply been the positive regression needed to get him back to where he should be.
Clevinger’s 13.82 K/9 is nearly a 50% improvement over his 2018 rate, and it is supported by a 4.6% jump in his swinging-strike rate. The main culprits of this are his slider (55% whiff rate) and fastball (two mph increase and 38% whiff rate, nearly double that of 2018). Add it all up, and hitters are making contact on his pitches over 10% less often than in 2018. If someone isn’t convinced that he is the real deal, you need to find that person.
Chris Sale (SP – BOS)
Sale’s roller-coaster season has been well documented, and it went off the rails again from June 21 until his most recent six-inning, 12-strikeout shutout July 18 against the Blue Jays. He had allowed a total of 19 runs in those four turns before rebounding last week.
This time around, it looks like his downturn was not warranted, judging by his 2.00 FIP and 1.15 xFIP. Specifically in July 13’s start against the Dodgers, half of the balls in play fell for hits, and he stranded just half of the baserunners allowed. Sure, the Dodgers are the best team in all of baseball, but he should have better fortunes coming. Looking at his season overall, his 69.4% strand rate is very unlucky, especially in light of his previous seasons ranging from the mid-70s to the low-80s. Despite the ups and downs, each of the main projection systems suggests a high-two to low-three ERA with a K rate just below Cole’s. Sign me up.
Jose Berrios (SP – MIN)
Berrios has had a good start to the stretch run on the surface, but not all is well. An 84% strand rate, 10 strikeouts, six walks, and no homers allowed in 10.2 innings is not a recipe to a 2.53 ERA. His ERA indicators suggest at least another full run on top.
Frankly, Berrios has gotten lucky all year. His K/9 is down 15% from last year, and his luck stats (strand rate, BABIP) are trending in the wrong direction. Berrios hasn’t had a blow-up start yet, but he also hasn’t posted a quality start in his last three outings. The projection systems have us looking at a 3.75-4.44 ERA the rest of the way. It’s worth seeking out someone with more strikeout upside if you’re already at a safe place with wins.