Positive & Negative Regression Candidates (Fantasy Baseball)
The trade deadline is coming up fast, and there is bound to be a lot of moving and shaking over the next few hours. Your trade deadline is likely a couple days after the real-life deadline, and you might be getting anxious over players who have performed poorly on your squad the past couple weeks. You also might be looking to add a final piece that could put you over the top. The key, my friends, is to win each week – do not overreact to a couple weeks of data. I’ll give you a laundry list of players to not overpay for (or if you have them already, to temper expectations moving forward), as well as players to target for the stretch run.
Keston Hiura (2B – MIL)
Yordan Alvarez (OF – HOU)
Both Hiura and Alvarez have been destroying major league pitching since the All-Star break, with Hiura posting a .441/.507/.864 slash line and Alvarez going .321/.415/.661. Hiura even ranks as the top second baseman in that span. Of course, this level of play is unsustainable, even for such big-pedigree talents. While their walk rates are both in the double digits, their strikeout rates (30% for Hiura, 29% for Alvarez) suggest that negative regression is coming.
For Hiura, this has been an issue all year, and it’s not just one type of pitch that is dogging him. With an 18% swinging strike rate and 63% contact rate in this period, it wouldn’t surprise me if his strikeout rate actually increased. Hiura did not strike out this much in the minors prior to 2019, but he has sold out for power this year, which typically means an increased K-rate. This power has led to a hard-hit rate that is nearly the same as his contact rate (62% since the break),which is impossible to maintain. With his lack of plate discipline, unsustainable hard-hit rate, and the adjustments that pitchers make on him the rest of the way, my bet is that Hiura is not a top eight second baseman the rest of the way.
As for Alvarez, his 46% hard-contact rate isn’t quite as impressive as Hiura’s, but it’s still dang good. The same issues dog Alvarez -0- he sees just 34.5% of pitches in the zone, makes contact at a too-small 73% clip, and has a 13% swinging strike rate during his All-Star break run. His contact and swinging strike rates for the season are slightly better (and much better than Hiura’s), but still leave room for negative regression.
Breaking balls are his archnemesis at the moment, as he’s hitting .194 against them with a 39% whiff rate. Unfortunately for him, teams have picked up on this, leading to pitchers doubling their breaking ball usage from June to July. As pitchers continue to increase their breaking ball usage against him, I would expect Alvarez to come back down to earth. The hype on Alvarez is real, and we can dissect it more in the offseason, but don’t expect this level of production the rest of the year.
Brad Keller (SP – KC)
Keller has been a killer on the mound since the All-Star break, sporting a 2.22 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and three percent walk rate. Under the hood, however, there are some warning signs that this feel-good run for the hapless Royals could come to an end at any moment. His .253 BABIP and 85% strand rate say as much. His nine percent strike rate also says his already average 20% K-rate should come down a few ticks. His FIP of 3.83 and xFIP of 3.66 indicate that he has gotten lucky, which corroborates the above peripherals.
Most telling is the strength of offenses he has faced since the break. Three of his four starts have come against bottom feeders in the AL, with the Braves being the lone exception. He is a pitch-to-contact pitcher, which is generally not a fantasy asset in this home run environment.
Taking a big picture view, Keller is a two-pitch pitcher with an average fastball. Going forward, Keller gets the Red Sox (eek), Tigers (start him), Mets (shrug), the Tribe (gross), and the A’s (also gross). At his best, he’s usable twice in the next month during your stretch run. Maybe you can sell him high for a struggling pitcher with solid underlying skills in a poor division, like Kyle Gibson.
Wade Miley (SP – HOU)
Similar to Keller, Miley induces soft contact rather than blazing strikes past hitters. But hey, it’s working — a 2.16 ERA, 60% groundball rate, and a 0.92 WHIP since the break. However, his 4.27 FIP suggests he has gotten lucky. Digging into the peripherals, his .186 BABIP and 77% strand rate suggest correction as well.
Miley has a better chance than Keller at keeping up this success, due to his four-pitch mix, with three of them having positive pitch values, per FanGraphs. But, with an 88% Z-Contact rate, his BABIP is bound to increase. As he starts to regress to the mean, his ERA will start aligning with the ERA indicators.
Stepping back out to look at Miley’s career, we know who he is. A 4+ ERA with a middling K-rate and a good-not-great groundball rate. Sure, pitchers on the Astros have some magic, but do you trust 120 innings with the ‘Stros (and 80 with the Brewers in 2018), or the 1,100 innings before that?
Khris Davis (OF – OAK)
Davis has had an all-time poor post-All Star break, slashing .200/.269/.283, good for a 50 wRC+. Simply brutal. Doing the deep dive shows promise. Let’s start with his batted ball profile, per FanGraphs. His 47.6% hard-hit rate is elite, as is his 9.5% soft-contact rate. He is hitting balls hard, but the type of balls he is hitting is causing his power to drop. While his spray profile is in line with his career norms, he is hitting grounders at much too high of a clip — 45 percent. In 2018, he hit grounders at a 35% rate, and he sits at 40% for his career. That should correct itself sooner rather than later.
He’s also having a tough time with breaking balls, which is not surprising given that breaking ball usage is up across the league. Hitting .197 and slugging .331 (per Baseball Savant) against these types of pitches with a 41.5% whiff rate is not how you do damage.
While there’s not much we can do to change how he hits breaking balls, I am banking on his groundball rate going down. When it does, watch out. As he gets farther away from his hip injury suffered in May, he should regain his power stroke and could be a league-winner in August and September.
Justin Upton (OF – LAA)
Similar to Davis, Upton is showing similar skills but a .182/.266/.345 post-All Star break mark is tough to swallow. Given his hard-hit rate of 47.2%, we know that some positive regression is in order. However, his 30% soft-contact rate needs to turn around before we start seeing the Upton of old. Considering he had a 17% soft-contact rate in 2018 and 20% rate in 2017, it is likely he will turn that around in August and September.
Upton has always struck out more than the league average, but his 33% K-rate since the All-Star break is bad, even for him. Considering that his swinging strike rate is three percentage points higher in this timeframe than his career norms, I’m expecting that K-rate to drop to the 27-28% range in August and September as his swinging strike rate returns to normal. And he should start making more contact, as we know that his 62% contact rate in this span should creep up to his 70% career levels. If that contact ends up being of the medium or hard variety, Upton will be just fine. You can likely acquire him for pennies on the dollar at this point.