Notable Second-Half Performances (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
Remember in the second half of the 2018 season when Christian Yelich completely broke out and won championships for fantasy owners? For those that don’t remember, he hit .367 with 25 home runs, 67 RBI, and 10 steals! That’s basically who he was in 2019 as well.
For this piece, I’m going to focus on some hitters and pitchers who had notable second-half performance and look into what we can expect going into 2020. Was it real or just a mirage? One of these players even out-homered Yelich’s monster 2018, but I’m not so optimistic for the guy in 2020. Keep in mind that when I’m referring to the second half, I am referencing games played after the All-Star break. Approximately 70-75 games are played after the break, so it’s not quite a full half-season of statistics that I’m covering below. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Unfortunately, Suarez suffered an injury to his shoulder while swimming this offseason that has required surgery, which jeopardizes his availability for Opening Day. Let’s not forget about the fact that Suarez led the majors with 29 home runs after the All-Star break. With an amazing 49 bombs as a whole last year, he increased his home run total for the fifth straight year. While his batting average in the second half was strong, it was buoyed by a .348 BABIP. I am a little leery of Suarez hitting above .250 if his strikeout rate, which jumped to over 30 percent in the second half, continues to rise. He’s also pulling the ball a lot more and hitting more popups. He’s really transformed into a true slugger, and the expected metrics support that power growth. This isn’t supposed to be a negative post about Suarez because the power is certainly real. The recovery from shoulder surgery is a concern along with his decreasing batting average, however, so without a proper timetable for his return, I’m fading him.
Most projection systems probably pegged Semien for under 19 home runs coming into 2019, yet he smashed that many in the second half alone. I searched the wRC+ leaders from the second half of 2019, and Semien checked in at seventh overall. His transformation has been a joy to watch. He was a middling Major League shortstop just five years ago, and now he’s an MVP candidate! His K/BB ratios went from 0.48 in 2018 all the way to 0.85 last season. Take a look at his swing/take profile from 2018 (top) and 2019 (bottom) and how he’s laying off pitches outside the zone and doing damage on pitches in the zone.
Based on these profiles, he was more selective at the plate, laying off of pitches in the chase and waste zones six percent more often. This approach has become a trend for Semien, who dropped his strikeout rate in every season for four consecutive years. His plate discipline backs it up, as his chase rate and zone contact rates continue to head in opposite directions. I believe in his improvements, but reaching 740 plate appearances again is a bit of pipedream. I’ll take 10-15 percent of his 2019 production off the top and be happy with that from Semien for this upcoming season.
I’m actually very excited about the progression that Schwarber has made over the last few years. In addition to the numbers above, Schwarber had a .631 slugging percentage with nearly a 0.5 walk per strikeout ratio (BB/K). His full-season home run pace based on the second half is 47 home runs! It’s dangerous to extrapolate, but he has shown significant gains in hard hit% (percentage of balls hit over 95 mph) while cutting his strikeout rate each of the last three seasons. I’m a big fan of Schwarber for 2020. Did I say that already? He hit the eighth hardest ball in 2019 at 117.6 mph, and his average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls ranked just behind Josh Donaldson. He won’t be an asset in batting average, thanks in part to pulling too many ground balls into the shift, but should improve on his 2019 batting average that settled in at .250. I can envision a 40-homer season from Schwarber in 2020 in this, his age-27 season.
To be quite honest, Santana had an all-around impressive season, not just in the second half. But, while his batting average dropped off, his power exploded after the All-Star break. Santana is a different hitter than he was when he first came onto the scene with the Twins. His hard hit% has improved by more than 10 percent since 2016, and he’s steadily increased his launch angle. His improvements in hard contact have come with a tradeoff, however. His strikeout rate has gone through the roof. Early in his career, he managed to whiff less often, with regular strikeout rates below 25 percent. In 2019, he struck out 29.5 percent of the time, and that ballooned to over 31 percent in the second half. Santana is one of the most volatile options for 2020. He’s eligible everywhere, so that’s a bonus. He provides stolen bases as well, so another 25-20 season is possible. However, his dangerous strikeout rate combined with lack of a stranglehold on a defensive position puts his playing time at risk. If his ADP stays inside the top-150, I’m staying away.
How could I not discuss Flaherty’s historic second half? Those numbers don’t look right to me. An ERA below 1.00? That’s crazy, especially when you consider that he finished the first half with a 4.64 ERA. Of course, some of those numbers were partially fueled by a .206 BABIP and a 94.2 percent strand rate. Make no mistake, he took his skills to the next level by increasing his strikeout rate while cutting his walk rate. He also allowed a lot less hard contact throughout the season. Figuring out what Flaherty will be in 2020 is difficult. To find out, you’ll likely need to spend a top-30 pick on him. I’m passing on that steep price, and here’s why.
Let’s break down his pitch mix. He has an elite slider, and his fastball/sinker combination provided great results last year. Results are one thing, though, and expected metrics are another. Given the quality of contact against his fastball, the results should have been worse. I’m still skeptical given the deflated BABIP against his fastballs and expect regression in 2020. His third pitch is a curveball. Flaherty has trouble commanding this pitch, so it’s far from a polished secondary offering. With a solid fastball and a wipeout slider, Flaherty can definitely be successful. But without a third plus-pitch, can he be a top-six of seven starter? I just can’t take the plunge to find out.
Clevinger missed the majority of the first half with a back injury, but it didn’t stop him from dominating hitters after the All-Star break in 2019. Tallying 11 wins boosted his second-half value, and that tied him with Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander for the most victories in the second half. Wins are fickle, but he also managed a 2.30 ERA with 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings. His 2.55 FIP backed up his performance. In terms of contact allowed, he saw just a 77.3 percent Z-Contact rate, which was good for the third-lowest among qualified starters. His Swinging strike% (SwStr%) was inside the top ten, and I could go on and on. The point is, he finished the season strong and looked like an ace. If you want something to hang your hat with him in 2020, it’s his increased fastball velocity. It jumped 1.5 mph, which helped gain 5.0 percent on his SwStr% to finish as one of the top three fastballs in baseball last year. The difference for me between Clevinger and Flaherty is the expected metrics back up Clevinger’s second half. I’m buying Clevinger as a fantasy ace for 2020. In fact, I had him ranked seventh overall among starting pitchers before the news broke of his injury. While it looks like he will miss the start of the regular season, and it’s always risky to draft injured players, he will be one of the top early IL stashes and could provide you with a discounted ace this fantasy baseball season.
In addition to the impressive second-half numbers Gray put up last year, he also allowed just 0.85 HR/9. What’s most impressive about that is Great American Ballpark is a launching pad, especially in the summer months. Gray found a way to suppress home runs thanks in large part to his curveball, slider, and sinker. Combined, he threw those three offerings over 1,800 times and gave up just eight home runs. While the lethal combination of his slider and curve have served Gray well over the years, it was his sinker that helped propel his strikeout rate to new heights. With a near 10% SwStr%, he struck out just under 30 percent of batters he faced while using his sinker. I don’t fully trust that his sinker can maintain those rates, but I am confident in Gray as a solid starter going forward. Being reunited with his college pitching coach, Derek Johnson should help Gray thrive. While there will likely be some regression, I’d expect his ERA to settle in around 3.50 with a strikeout per inning.