Negative Regression Candidates (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
Approximately two weeks ago, I wrote an article about positive regression candidates. The “Bouncebacks.” These were the players whose numbers were unsustainably bad. Some of them strayed too far away from career averages, while others actually performed better than what we saw on the surface.
Now, I’m going in the opposite direction.
This column specifically looks at players who over-performed in 2020. One would think this should be a mirror image of the approach I took with the positive regression candidates. Not exactly.
Pitchers will follow a direct reversal of the prior article’s math, but hitters are in a more unique situation. Players dropped to impossible lows — batting around the .200 mark — during the pandemic-shortened season, but no qualified hitters finished the year with a .400 batting average. Instead, the batting title winner was a repeat champion who had also finished second in the league in another season — DJ LeMahieu.
Unlike the positive regression candidates, those set to negatively regress generally don’t have as drastic a move ahead of them. The key is to factor in some decline and not look at last season’s numbers as a springboard for immediate improvement.
Jose Ramirez (3B – CLE)
Let’s start this off with a big name — top-ten overall pick big. Jose Ramirez has made a career out of wild swings of production from one season to the next — including, famously, in 2019 when he had two completely different campaigns in one. This isn’t the case of selling Ramirez at his peak, however. It’s a little more concerning than that.
Ramirez boosted both his batting average and on-base percentage in 2020 compared to 2019, and his slugging percentage hit a career-high. The problem? So did his strikeout percentage. His soft-hit percentage also climbed to his highest point since 2014 and ranked 25th-worst out of 142 qualified hitters.
Ramirez remains one of the best hitters in the sport, and he shouldn’t be avoided outright. The problem is that he is a prime regression candidate by virtue of the spikes in his numbers that are not supported by the underlying metrics. Scale back the expectations and then draft Ramirez accordingly.
Christian Vazquez (C – BOS)
Given how generally high his floor is, Jose Ramirez making an appearance on this list might be a surprise. Chrsitian Vazquez is not. Vazquez reached career highs in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wOBA — weighted on-base average — and reached his second-highest batting average. Like Ramirez, Vazquez also struck out at the highest rate of his career while logging his second-best BABIP — batting average on balls in play. BABIP isn’t a perfect indicator of “luck,” but it does signify a potentially unsustainable trend. That’s where we find Vazquez.
Once again, Ramirez and Vazquez’s similarities in terms of their 2020 numbers are striking, as soft-hit percentage is another reason to pump the brakes. Vazquez led the league here, as well as reached a career-high. To his credit, he also tallied his personal second-highest hard-hit percentage of his six-year career, so it appears as if Vazquez went with an “all-0r-nothing” approach in 2020. Between the two options, the regression is more likely to shift him from “all” to “nothing.”
Michael Conforto (OF – NYM)
Perhaps the most difficult player to put on this list was Michael Conforto. He finished eighth-best among qualified hitters in batting average and perfectly fits the mold of a player who is progressing to the point that a further breakout might be imminent. Still, he slid a little too far in the positive direction, and a huge reason why was his BABIP. At .412, he led the league by 0.016. That’s the same gap between the second-highest and sixth-highest player on the list.
Conforto’s underlying numbers are stable enough that regression isn’t likely to come from how he hits the ball — his soft, medium, and hard-hit percentages were all in-line with his career averages. It’s simply the results — what matters most to our fantasy teams in this upcoming season — that are at-risk. Conforto previously reached high watermarks for both batting average and on-base percentage in the same season — 2017 — at .279 and .384, respectively. He hit .322 with a .412 on-base percentage in 2020. His spike in BABIP from 2019 to 2020 was an absurd 0.122. As soon as that decreases, so will his other numbers.
Trevor Bauer (SP – LAD)
I started the hitter’s list of negative regression candidates with a fantasy baseball darling, and I’ll do the same for the pitchers. Trevor Bauer is the high-end candidate likely to regress, even if — similarly to the aforementioned Jose Ramirez — Bauer’s fall will be comparatively small. Why any decline? Because his FIP — fielding independent pitching — was more than one run higher than his ERA. Only five other qualified starting pitchers had such an extreme disconnect.
The good news for Bauer is that his ERA was so absurdly low in 2020 — second-best in the league — that a move toward the mean could still leave him as a top-flight pitcher. Still, there’s too much room for a negative shift. Bauer also allowed the second-lowest BABIP in the league, so there’s an element of “luck” involved. Granted, Bauer earned some of that low BABIP by inducing soft contact, but it’s another avenue for his ERA to inch higher.
Dallas Keuchel (SP – CWS)
If I made a case for Trevor Bauer’s regression based on the difference between ERA and FIP, I must list Dallas Keuchel. He was one of the six total qualified starting pitchers with a FIP-ERA greater than 1.00, but his other numbers are more worrisome than Bauer’s. Specifically, Keuchel cannot rely on strikeouts, as he had the third-lowest rate in the league.
It doesn’t stop there. Part of Keuchel’s strengths in 2020 was in limiting home runs. He not only ranked first in the league in home-runs-per-nine-innings but also led the league in home-runs-per-fly-ball. The latter is the most concerning, as it’s the clearest route to a higher ERA. In fact, while Keuchel’s FIP was 3.08 — definitely solid in its own right — his xFIP — expected fielding independent pitching — was 3.98. That ranks him 23rd out of 40.
Zach Davies (SP – CHC)
There’s no surprise in the trend that I am following with the pitchers on this list, as Zach Davies slides in because he is the third pitcher with a gap between ERA and FIP of greater than 1.00 in the wrong direction. He actually was tied with Trevor Bauer with the second-highest mark — to appease any curiosity, Chris Bassitt was first.
Davies follows the same troubling pattern of Bauer and Keuchel, but he doesn’t have the same starting point. Where Bauer and Keuchel pitched to ERA’s under 2.00 in 2020, Davies finished the year at 2.73. That puts his FIP of 3.88 and xFIP of 4.14 at 25th and 27th out of 40, respectively. His strikeout rate also sat below one-per-inning but was the highest of his career. Davies is primed for regression, and it might be drastic given how far he deviated from some of his career numbers in 2020.
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