Positive Regression/Bounce-Back Candidates (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
We’re all in the same boat. It’s March of 2021, and the world is wildly different than it was in March of 2020. We’re entering the heart of Fantasy Baseball Draft Season, but this year’s decisions will require an extra layer of consideration.
Normally, we would gauge any player’s career numbers against last season’s to try to determine where the outliers fall. Was the prior year aligned with career averages, a breakout, or a complete disaster?
This time, we will always feel the pull of the unorthodox 2020 season. We will constantly question if any numbers are valid, let alone the ones we are already discounting. We might be tempted to completely strike it from the record or go the extreme route and extrapolate 60 games into 162.
Whichever direction we choose, we can make the narrative fit, and that’s dangerous. It gives us the power to bend the numbers to our will.
So let’s remove that power. Let’s set aside any preconceived notions about 2020 and compare ratios to ratios. Draft Season presents plenty of opportunities for us to settle on a general direction for each player. In this article, we can focus our attention entirely on those whose numbers dipped so far that a positive regression to the mean is likely.
Where else can we begin this article besides Javier Baez? He is arguably the face of “regression,” as his 2020 numbers were impossibly bad. How bad? Among all qualified hitters, he ranked dead last in on-base percentage and third-worst in OPS. By comparison, DJ LeMahieu had a higher batting average — .364 — than Baez’s slugging percentage — .360.
How do we know that this isn’t the new trend for Baez? Simply put, he appeared to be unlucky. Granted, “luck” takes many forms and has a tendency to skew on the subjective side, but the key is comparing his numbers over the course of his seven-year career.
Since 2016, in which he played at least 138 games on a yearly basis, Baez consistently held a BABIP — batting average on balls-in-play — that ranged perfectly between .336 and .347. Last year, that number dropped to .262.
I’m not a proponent of BABIP as a standalone number, largely because how a ball is hit plays a large impact on its outcome. That’s where we find the bright future for Baez. He saw only a slight dropoff in hard-hit percentage from 2019 to 2020, but it was still the second-highest of his career. In addition, his soft-hit percentage was the lowest since 2015, where he played only 28 games.
I can essentially copy-and-paste a large segment of what I wrote about Javier Baez and apply it to Jose Altuve. This is because Altuve also fell to the bottom of most hitting categories and is now in a position to positively correct toward the mean with a vengeance.
Like Baez, Altuve also decreased his soft-hit percentage, despite posting the lowest batting average of his career. How did that happen? Again, BABIP. Altuve had nine consecutive seasons in which his BABIP sat above .300, but it plummeted to .250 in 2020.
Altuve’s presence on this list is driven largely by the disconnect between the backend of his numbers — BABIP and soft-hit percentage, mainly — and frontend results that saw career lows. There is, however, another element to Altuve’s game that didn’t have a chance to develop: timing.
Throughout his career, Altuve sees a major spike in production in the mid-season months of June and July that eventually tapers back down in August and September. In essence, he gets better when he has a chance to find a rhythm. We actually saw this effort begin in 2020, but there wasn’t enough time for it to develop fully. Altuve had a higher batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS in each successive month from July to August and August to September. He’ll now have the benefit of a full season.
Christian Yelich batted .205 in 2020. Two-oh-five. I’m not sure I need to dig deeper than that, but let’s go down this road together.
Yelich is a career .296 hitter — that’s not his high watermark; that’s his overall batting average for his eight seasons, including 2020. Like the prior two hitters on this list, Yelich was also a victim of an extremely bad BABIP, one that dropped nearly 100 points from 2019. His soft-hit percentage also dropped, and he follows the same pattern as the aforementioned Baez and Altuve.
The only true downside of Yelich’s game, if we compare 2020 to the rest of his career, was an abnormally high strikeout rate. That is concerning, but 2020 also produced his highest walk rate, so there’s a possibility that his plate discipline increased but also backfired.
Ultimately, Yelich went from finishing in the top-two for MVP in back-to-back seasons to a hitter with an Offensive WAR ranked 71st among qualified hitters. He’s significantly below his mean, and that won’t last for another season.
While the three hitters on this list all follow the same pattern of a low BABIP compared to their underlying metrics, pitchers have their own comparison tool that answers the same question of, “What should have happened?” That is, FIP compared to ERA.
FIP — fielding independent pitching — can loosely be boiled down to “a pitcher’s influence on the game” where we don’t care about the defense behind said pitcher. Here, we want players whose FIP was significantly lower than their ERA, as it serves as a de facto “Unlucky Meter.” The qualified starting pitcher with the biggest gap in 2020? Zack Greinke.
Greinke will be a top target for me in almost every league because of his longevity—which will be paramount in a season that followed a shortened campaign—but he tops this list for pitchers because his ERA was over 4.00 and his FIP was under 3.00. He is the only qualified pitcher from last year that can stake that claim.
Greinke’s 2.80 FIP, alone, ranked sixth-best in Major League Baseball, while his ERA of 4.03 was the 12th-highest among qualified starting pitchers. Use this disconnect to your advantage and target Greinke for a major positive regression.
While we won’t get another qualified starting pitcher with a difference between FIP and ERA greater than 1.0 — Greinke was the only player to have a number greater than 0.95 — Luis Castillo ranks seventh-best in this category and fifth-best in FIP. His ERA of 3.21 sits right in the middle-of-the-pack, which leads to his impressive FIP signaling a possibly undervalued asset.
The issue with Castillo is that this disconnect was also present throughout 2020, and he simply never reverted to his mean. That is, however, the first time in his four-year career where his ERA exceeded his FIP. Castillo also improved his strikeout rate to an outstanding 11.44 K-per-9, good for ninth-best in the league.
Fantasy managers will certainly not overlook Castillo on Draft Day, but there’s reason to expect an even better season than most projections are suggesting. If he regresses to his mean as stated in this article, he will be worth the premium.
I mentioned that Greinke was the only qualified starting pitcher to have a difference between ERA and FIP of greater than 0.95 in the positive direction, but only one other player had a number greater than 0.80. Care to venture a guess? Smart reader. You saw the heading of this section. It is, indeed, Matthew Boyd.
Boyd is clearly a concern, despite his potential regression to the mean. Why? Because the mean, in terms of ERA, was still bad — a pitiful 6.71. Fear not. There is an avenue for success.
Boyd was absolutely slaughtered by the longball, ranking third-worst in home-runs-per-fly-ball with an average of 19.7 percent. There were already concerning signs of an uptick in this category from 2018 to 2019, but the 2020 mark was a career-worst and almost double his career-best in 2017.
Boyd has never been known for carrying a low ERA — his best season sat at 4.39 — but his strikeout rate is still roughly at one-per-inning, and he only needs to limit home runs to get back in the positive direction. We should target such a move largely because Boyd’s fly-ball-percentage dropped to his lowest rate of the last three years and second-lowest of his career. Where hitters on this list suffered from bad BABIP luck, it looks like Boyd suffered from bad Fly Ball luck.
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