The Outliers: 10 Players Whose 2020 Performance Can Be Ignored
A mark of a good athlete quickly shakes off their poor performances to focus on the next opportunity. As fantasy players, if the circumstances are right, we should have the same mindset. Last year was a bizarre season full of on-and-off spring training, COVID delaying games (not to mention the more serious effects of the disease), and games being played in minor league stadiums. We have to cut through the noise of the season and identify what matters — and figure out what data we can ignore. Below, you’ll find ten players that we can write off parts of (or the entirety) of their 2020.
Austin Meadows (OF – TB)
2020: 152 PA, 4 HR, 19 R, 13 RBI, 2 SB, .205 average
2021 projection: 600 PA, 28 HR, 94 R, 71 RBI, 12 SB, .276 average
Meadows’s 2020 was a trainwreck spearheaded by COVID. He was placed on the COVID-19 IL in mid-July and returned in early August. He then suffered an oblique injury at the end of August and sat on the IL until the end of the regular season.
Players have recovered in different ways from COVID, and Meadows represents what can go wrong.
|Max Exit Velocity||Barrel Rate||K%|
There is no doubt that he earned his poor season. The dip in max exit velocity is likely due to his oblique injury, as the stat is correlated with injury (or lack thereof). However, his poor season is easily explained, and this likely isn’t who Meadows is, especially after a full offseason to recover. Even when taking his porous 2020 into account, he still saw tremendous growth in barrel rate, particularly on fastballs, when comparing 2018 to a combined 2019 and 2020.
|Fastball Barrel %||Breaking Ball Barrel %||Offspeed Barrel %|
While he only played in 59 games in 2018, barrel rate stabilizes relatively quickly and is more predictive than most advanced metrics. He clearly made gains from 2018 to 2019, and I expect most of those gains to carry into 2021, as he wasn’t himself in 2020.
Yoan Moncada (3B – CWS)
2020: 231 PA, 6 HR, 28 R, 24 RBI, 0 SB, .225 average
2021 projection: 625 PA, 24 HR, 79 R, 79 RBI, 9 SB, .270 average
Moncada went on the COVID-19 IL in mid-July, and he returned just before the season’s start. He complained about his legs not feeling right for most of the season and sat out a few games with various leg injuries towards the end of it. As we did with Meadows, let’s see how Moncada fared in three key categories.
|Max Exit Velocity||Barrel Rate||K%|
Like Meadows, Moncada displayed decreased skills in 2020, all of which can be chalked up to him having to play fatigued. He did not get to ease into the season, which likely resulted in poor timing at the plate. With a full offseason to recover, he should retain most of the gains he made from 2019. While he will never be a master of plate discipline, he has led the league in BABIP in both 2018 and 2019. His batted ball profile (career 22.4% line drive rate and 13.6-degree career launch angle) suggests that the high BABIP is here to stay. Combine that with the potential for a 20 HR/10 SB season, and fantasy players will quickly forget about Moncada’s disappointing 2020.
Jack Flaherty (SP – STL)
2020: 9 starts, 40 and 1/3 IP, 4.91 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 28.8% K rate
2021 projection: 30 starts, 180 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 29.2% K rate
Flaherty didn’t have COVID, but he was forced to turn his hotel room into a bullpen. Due to the Cardinals’ rampant COVID problems, Flaherty had a 25-day gap between starts. Despite the long layoff, he did not have a significant reduction in skills from 2019.
The increase in walk rate is backed up by a decrease in O-Swing% (the rate at which hitters swing at pitches outside the strike zone). Outside of the higher walk rate, the reason for his poor season simply seems to be bad luck that would have positively regressed over a full season.
Both of these stats were too small to stabilize in 2020, and we know that Flaherty can do better than giving up over 1.3 homers per nine innings. Further, if you take out his awful nine-run outing against the Tigers, his ERA shrinks to 3.13. The only question mark is if the Cardinals let him ramp back up to 180-190 innings after a weird year. My guess is that he gets to at least 180 IP, which will make him worthy of being an SP1.
How is that even possible?
Bryan Reynolds (OF – PIT)
2020: 208 PA, 7 HR, 24 R, 19 RBI, 1 SB, .189 average
2021 projection: 600 PA, 18 HR, 73 R, 69 RBI, 3 SB, .279 average
Reynolds had one of the weirder outlier seasons, and we aren’t talking enough about it. Going into 2020, his career low in batting average between the majors and minors was .302. So, how do you explain a drop to below the Mendoza line? Well, his strikeout rate increased five percentage points while his BABIP decreased from .387 in 2019 to a paltry .231 in 2020. It’s difficult to decipher how he got so unlucky.
|Max Exit Velocity||Barrel Rate||LD%||SwStr%|
These advanced metrics are largely the same, and the barrel rate increase is a welcome sign. Even the drastic increase in strikeout rate isn’t fully supported. While he did struggle with breaking balls more in 2020, the small sample leads me to not make that a significant part of my projection. Given that he is going as a fifth outfielder in NFBC drafts, I’m willing to toss 2020 aside and focus on who he was in the minors and his excellent debut in 2019.
Christian Yelich (OF – MIL)
2020: 247 PA, 12 HR, 39 R, 22 RBI, 4 SB, .205 average
2021 projection: 660 PA, 34 HR, 114 R, 85 RBI, 18 SB, .300 average
Everyone is wondering what happened to Christian Yelich, and the answer is strikeouts.
The interesting thing is that he actually had a drop in swinging-strike rate, which would suggest that his strikeout rate should have also gone down. The clear driver behind his uptick in strikeouts was his swing rate and contact rates.
|Swing Rate||Contact Rate|
Last season was an outlier for Yelich in terms of his strategy at the plate, which in large part seems due to a lack of in-game video. While he likely won’t steal 20 or 30 bases again, the homers were still there in 2020, and that’s backed up by his above-average barrel and hard-hit rates. I think he will right the ship fairly quickly in 2021, and he should provide value at the back of the first round.
Zack Wheeler (SP – PHI)
2020: 11 starts, 71 IP, 2.92 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 18.4% K rate
2021 projection: 29 starts, 175 IP, 3.48 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 23.5% K rate
You might be thinking, ‘Wheeler had an excellent season, so why is he on the list?’ Well, folks, this list isn’t just for guys who disappointed in 2020 — it’s for the players who had seasons that were extreme outliers. The outlier, in this case, is Wheeler’s strikeout rate. All the advanced metrics suggest that his strikeout rate should have been similar to 2019.
In fact, you could discern from these metrics that his strikeout rate should have slightly increased. After some engagement on Twitter, it seems his drop in strikeouts was due to inducing more groundballs and getting fewer called strikes.
From a sabermetrics standpoint, Zack Wheeler's drop in K rate does not make sense.
2019: 10.4% SwStr, 96.7 MPH avg FB, 50.6% swing rate, 84.2% contact rate
2020: 10.8% SwStr, 96.9 MPH avg FB, 52.8% swing rate, 84.3% contact rate
Has anyone else identified an issue, if any?
— Carmen Maiorano (@carmsclubhouse) January 9, 2021
This likely won’t be as extreme over a full season, and his strikeouts would have returned to typical levels. His FIP and SIERA were in line with his career-best 2018, and I think he can replicate 2018 in 2021.
John Means (SP – BAL)
2020: 10 starts, 43 and 2/3 IP, 4.53 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 23.9% K rate
2021 projection: 30 starts, 185 IP, 3.80 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 23% K rate
Means dealt with arm fatigue in his ramp-up to this past season, which you can’t really hold against him. After two starts, his dad sadly passed away. He missed one start, and due to the arm fatigue he had already experienced, he wasn’t able to consistently pitch into the sixth inning until September 2nd.
That 2020 ERA and FIP (5.60) look ugly, but he struck out 21 batters in his final two starts. Also, he clearly improved as a pitcher, despite the surface-level stats.
Even if he doesn’t retain all of these gains, the Orioles will rely on him like a horse, and he should be able to eclipse 170 innings. While that may not seem like much, it will be an outlier in a year in which starters’ innings limits are drastically reduced after 2020.
Alex Bregman (3B – HOU)
2020: 180 PA, 6 HR, 19 R, 22 RBI, 0 SB, .242 average
2021 projection: 675 PA, 33 HR, 102 R, 101 RBI, 6 SB, .285 average
After posting wRCs of 156 and 168 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, it certainly looks like Bregman had a down year. However, he still was 22% above the league average. The clear driver of his “middling” performance was his three-week absence caused by a sore right hamstring. The hamstring still seemed to be bothering him even after returning from the IL, as he slashed .197/.315/.377 en route to a 95 wRC+ in September.
Despite the down year, nothing in his profile changed significantly. He still struck out at an elite rate and walked over 13% of the time. His hard-hit and barrel rates were both down two percentage points, which led to a decrease in his expected slugging and wOBA. Over a full season, I think that his barrel rate will positively regress to the mean. He has never been a Statcast darling, to begin with, and after a full offseason to rest his hamstring, I think that we’ll see another peak-Bregman season.
Gleyber Torres (SS – NYY)
2020: 160 PA, 3 HR, 17 R, 16 RBI, 1 SB, .243 average
2021 projection: 650 PA, 34 HR, 87 R, 98 RBI, .6 SB, 272 average
Like Bregman, Torres suffered a hamstring injury in late July and missed a couple of weeks. Unlike Bregman, he roared to the finish line with a 134 wRC+ over 69 plate appearances. He continues a great trend from a plate discipline perspective.
The main “issue” behind his subpar (at least by his standards) season was his barrel and hard-hit rates, which were one-third of his 2018 and 2019 rates. Again, I think that his barrel rate would stabilize over a normal season, especially since he posted a career-high in max exit velocity. He’s also dropping in drafts due to not having second base eligibility, but he still should occupy a premium spot in the order for a deadly lineup.
Aaron Civale (SP – CLE)
2020: 12 starts, 74 IP, 4.74 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 22.1% K rate
2021 projection: 30 starts, 180 IP, 3.65 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 21.3% K rate
Civale, after being labeled as a potential breakout pitcher, seemingly struggled in 2020. However, we can blame his poor ERA and WHIP on an unlucky .333 BABIP and 15.7% HR/FB rate. Yes, his barrel rate increased four percentage points, but it’s hardly a crime to have a 6.7% barrel rate as a pitcher. His hard-hit rate stayed consistent, and his maximum exit velocity allowed was five miles per hour below his 2019 debut season.
BABIP and HR/FB rate are not particularly sticky and take a long time to stabilize, so I’m not putting much stock into those stats. However, he did lower his walk rate by two percentage points, and at the same time, he increased his strikeout rate, leading to a 4.03 FIP. When you put it all together, and with the Indians now having to trust Civale as their number three starter, he should pitch relatively deep into games while posting favorable ratios.
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