Positive and Negative Regression Candidates (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Back in action after the All-Star Break, there are several players worth a deep dive on as we roar into the second half of the season. There has been plenty of talk on who to buy-low and sell-high as we near the real-life trade deadline, so let’s skip more talked about names like Fernando Tatis Jr., Rhys Hoskins, Blake Snell, and focus on less-discussed ballplayers, as well as those who are on perceived hot or cold streaks. After all, where there is Smoak, there’s Fiers. Read on, you’ll see what I mean.
Positive Regression Candidates
Eugenio Suarez (3B – CIN)
Suarez is having a fairly normal year by his standards, slashing .248/.326/.484 prior to the All-Star Break. Taking a look at his Statcast metrics, he has actually been a bit lucky, seeing that his .228 xBA and .427 xSLG are both well below the actuals. He also ranks just 77th out of 225 qualified hitters (at least 150 batted ball events) in exit velocity on flies and liners – not pretty. His strikeout rate sits at a detrimental 26.8 percent, which is supported by his 11.5% swinging-strike rate and poor 51.2% O-Contact percentage.
So, why am I high on him? Simply put, I think there’s another level that he can reach, in three of the five roto categories. In 2018, Suarez sported a 91.2 MPH average exit velocity, two miles per hour above where he currently sits. His exit velocity on flies and liners in 2018 are about the same as this year, which means that he may have room to grow in the average department, given that the additional exit velocity in 2018 came from groundballs. Batting averages go up when grounders are hit hard, and I’m expecting Suarez to regress to last year’s mean. His K-rate should also decrease to at least his career rate of 24 percent, if not the 23% we saw in 2017 and 2018. I’m not expecting him to increase his average 39 percentage points to last year’s .283 average, but he can certainly be a .265-.270 hitter. In the context of where baseball is at today, that helps your team.
We also should consider team context. I’m not expecting the Reds to sell off their free-agent acquisitions, given that they have a fighting chance for a wildcard spot with Scooter Gennett returning from the IL and Alex Wood just around the corner. Yasiel Puig is back on track after a miserable start to his campaign, and with Suarez sandwiched between Joey Votto and Puig, another combined 75 runs and RBI is not out of reach. If you can trade him for Paul DeJong or Eduardo Escobar, by all means.
Justin Smoak (1B – TOR)
Bobby Sylvester mentioned Smoak on his most recent FantasyPros baseball podcast, but Smoak is worth another mention. Smoak currently sits as the seventh unluckiest hitter, judging by the difference between his wOBA (.331) and xwOBA (.387). In fact, his xwOBA sits in the 94th percentile, with his xSLG in the 89th. Smoak is striking out just below 20% of the time this year, which is five percent below the league average. His walk rate also sits in the top four percent of the league, which is driving that high xwOBA.
If there is one hole in Smoak’s game, it’s breaking balls. His .191 batting average is actually lucky, considering his .176 xBA. Ditto to his .412 slugging percentage and .394 xSLG. Still, you can likely pick up Smoak off of waivers and have him be a top ten first baseman the rest of the way. This is how you can win a league.
Daniel Murphy (1B/2B – COL)
Murphy has struggled with a finger injury all season, going as far to say that he has been playing with a splint on it for months. This has been the main source of his poor performance to date, hitting .288/.341/.481 so far. This looks like a fairly good line until we remember he plays half his games in Coors and we drafted him to be a .330/.410/.500 type player.
Despite the poor results, Murphy’s plate discipline is in line with his career numbers. He is making a bit less contact (about 1.5 percentage points) and seeing fewer balls in the zone (three percentage points), but his swinging strike rate is still elite. Murphy has never been a Statcast darling (i.e., average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, etc.), so using those numbers to understand his performance is not the best source.
The good news for Murphy owners is that may be over his injury, launching homers on consecutive days last week. He has failed to produce much in the last four games since then, but clearly, Murphy is a talented player with a solid floor, and is someone we can expect to be at least ten percent better than league average when it’s all said and done. With a 97 wRC+ currently, we can assume (and hope) that positive regression is coming. The All-Star Break may have been just what he needed to rest up.
Edwin Diaz (RP – NYM)
Everyone hates the Mets (all the time), and especially Diaz, at least currently. Diaz has been terrible recently, blowing up for nine total runs (all earned) against the Phillies on June 27th and July 5th. Aside from that, Diaz hasn’t been as bad as advertised, striking out four batters in the previous two outings before the June 27th shelling, and not allowing a run over three innings since the July 5th escapade.
Statcast still loves him, given his 97th percentile fastball velocity and K-rate, a spin rate in the 80th percentile, and an xwOBA in the 86th percentile. That xwOBA is over 70 percentage points better this actual wOBA. Simply put, he’s been a bit unlucky. If we have to identify the main area of the source of his unluckiness, it starts and ends with his slider. The batting average on the slider is .327, with an xBA of .272. Similarly, the slugging percentage on the pitch is .531, with an xSLG of .351. Once that settles down, Diaz will regain his form as a top-five closer. There is nobody to challenge him as the closer, and the Mets have enough talent to get him another 15 saves the rest of the way. Buy low on him now before he reaches that threshold.
Negative Regression Candidates
Michael Chavis (2B/3B – BOS)
Chavis started out like gangbusters, hitting .263 with ten homers over his first 137 at-bats. Of course, a near-30% HR/FB rate was going to be nearly impossible to sustain…and he hasn’t. It seems the league has figured him out, given that he has hit six homers in June and July combined with a .260 average. Chavis had shown that he can be a .300 hitter in the minors, but his 40-grade hit tool shows that isn’t his strength.
So, why won’t Chavis turn it around in the second half? For one, I’m banking on him hitting the rookie wall, as 2017 is his only season with 500+ plate appearances. Heck, he had less than 200 plate appearances in 2018 due to his PED suspension. It’s not like Chavis is doing anything exceptional either, besides striking out a ton (32.8 percent). His walk rate is solid, and his barrel rate is certainly above average, but the plate discipline has not developed to where he can be a consistent hitter. While expected stats are reflective, not predictive, his bottom eight percent expected batting average shows as much. He has been up and down the lineup, but has been recently hitting in the eight spot, which will hurt his chances for counting stats. He should be a solid corner/middle infielder option the rest of the way, but don’t expect anything more.
Mike Fiers (SP – OAK)
Fiers has been ripping off several fantastic starts, most recently against the White Sox, shutting them out over 7 and 2/3 innings. He has allowed just 18 earned runs over his last twelve starts. So, what’s not to like? Let’s start with his strand rate, which has been over 80 percent in every month since May. He’s also been able to keep the ball in the yard (10.5% HR/FB rate), despite inducing grounders just 38% of the time. Given the current rabbit ball, we can expect that HR/FB rate to creep up over the second half. He’s also striking out a measly 5.81 K/9, which coincides with a 15.8% K-rate. Yes, this is supported by his 7.8% swinging-strike rate. While Fiers outpitched his ERA indicators last year, I’m not expecting him to keep it up. Of the four main projections publicly available on FanGraphs, none of them is projecting him with an ERA lower than 4.68. Unsurprisingly, all of his expected stats for each pitch suggest that he has been lucky. What do we do when pitchers are continuously lucky in a home run environment unlike we’ve ever seen? Fade, fade, and fade some more.
Mike Minor (SP – TEX)
This one is a bit bold and could come around to bite me if he gets traded. Texas is one of the worst places to pitch, so (theoretically) if he were to get traded, we would assume that it is in a more pitcher-friendly park. Minor does have the same ERA on the road and at home – a shiny 2.73. He is generating lower contact rates and subsequently a higher swinging strike rate, which seems to stem from having a higher spin rate on his four-seamer this year. In fact, all of his pitches have a significant more amount of spin as compared to last year, suggesting that these contact rates and swings-and-misses are legit. However, the three ERA indicators (FIP, xFIP, and SIERA) for Minor range between 3.82 and 4.43, suggesting he has been lucky. His expected statistics for all four of his pitches have generally been earned, so maybe Minor can successfully outpitch those ERA indicators. Still, just as we thought that German Marquez was the first pitcher to solve Coors, Minor won’t be the first pitcher to solve Globe Life Park. I’m betting on his rest-of-season ERA to be nearly a full run higher, and each projection system shows much worse, ranging from a 4.30 to a 4.50 ERA.
One more element to consider in selling high on him. It’s also fair to consider how long he can keep this up. Already at 122 innings, he hasn’t pitched more than 157 innings since 2013. Yes, he was signed to be a starter, and he has certainly delivered this year, but it’s not reasonable to expect this level of performance as he soars past 175 innings.