Buy High, Sell Low: Yordan Alvarez, Max Scherzer, Lucas Giolito (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
As I’ve continued to write over the past few weeks, we are going ever-deeper into the season, and we are reaching the point where “starts” — hot or cold — are blending into “years.” Whatever “it” is, it may simply be what we are getting from a player for the remainder of the year.
That’s part of the game of fantasy baseball. We need to decide which trajectories are exactly that — the path that the player will take from now through the end of the season — and which are streaks that will come to an end.
Hitters to Buy
The only concern prior to the 2021 season was health. That’s it. Yordan Alvarez had proven to be capable of hitting for a high batting average while also carrying tremendous power. Again, the caveat was health.
Indeed, Alvarez has missed some time this season, but it was related to COVID-19 and not an injury. Even with that absence, Alvarez is still among the league leaders in Offensive WAR.
The reality is that the offseason concerns were valid at the time but have since been erased. Alvarez is clearly one of the best fantasy baseball assets in standard leagues — although his lack of walks doesn’t help in leagues that value on-base percentage.
Nick Castellanos was the perfect example of a “buy-low” candidate in the offseason. Now? He’s the perfect example of a “buy-high” candidate. Such is the ebb and flow of fantasy baseball.
Castellanos hit .298 and .289 in 2018 and 2019 before seeing his batting average completely collapse to .225 in the shortened 2020 season. The key, however, is that Castellanos’ power did not evaporate with his average.
Not only has Castellanos positively corrected to the mean, but he has done so with a vengeance. His Cincinnati Reds are the league leaders in runs-per-game, and he’s a major reason for the team’s success. There’s no reason to think it will end anytime soon.
When Carlos Santana moved from Cleveland to Kansas City, there was a debate as to how this would impact his fantasy numbers. As it turns out, Santana might be better off with the Royals, as he has recovered from a pitiful .199 batting average in 2020 while also rejuvenating some of his power numbers.
Perhaps the most important element of Santana’s fantasy value is his playing time. He’s a regular with the Royals, and there is no indication that he will be pushed aside in the near future. Some fantasy managers might consider this the perfect time to “sell-high” on him, but I’d be buying into Santana. That’s largely because his on-base percentage is currently the third-highest of his career.
Pitchers to Buy
Max Scherzer’s brilliant start against the New York Yankees — 14 strikeouts and one earned run allowed over 7.1 innings — is easily going to improve all of his season-long numbers, but we should know better than to expect a negative regression. Scherzer has been one of the best fantasy baseball pitchers for years and, while age and injuries have started to take their toll on him, he has essentially erased a poor 2020 season with an impressive start to 2021.
Starting with 2015 — his first season with the Nationals — Scherzer’s ERAs are as follows: 2.79, 2.96, 2.51, 2.53, 2.92, and 3.74. It isn’t difficult to see that the last one — from 2020 — is an outlier. Where is he in 2021? 2.33.
Tyler Mahle’s high strikeout rate and noticeable improvement in ERA from 2019 to 2020 landed him on many sleeper lists in the preseason. Six weeks into the 2021 campaign, Mahle has delivered for those who bought into him.
We should still be buying.
Mahle’s strikeout rate has actually increased since last season, and it’s likely due to the uptick in fastball velocity — which has crept higher now in three consecutive years. His ERA of 3.00 is probably a little too low with his xERA and FIP trending higher but, even if he has some negative regression, Mahle is still a pitcher on the rise.
I normally shy away from pitchers with low strikeout rates, as it puts the pressure on them to maintain a low ERA in order to be viable for a fantasy baseball roster. Thankfully, Zach Plesac appears on the verge of doing exactly that.
Currently, Plesac is pitching to a 3.83 ERA which neither extraordinary nor terrible. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder here, and Plesac could easily look like a “sell-high” option for a fantasy manager trying to reap the rewards of the sub-4.00 ERA. This is where we buy. Plesac’s xERA and FIP are both less than his actual ERA — 3.14 and 3.45, respectfully — suggesting that he is actually more likely to do better than worse in the future.
Hitters to Sell
I was one of the early buyers of Alec Bohm as he emerged in 2020, but it was almost entirely due to his batting average. He wasn’t a legitimate power threat — just four home runs in 44 games — but Bohm hit an impressive .338 in his debut campaign.
Now, he’s batting .221, a drop of more than 100 points. There’s a high probability that he turns this bad start around and improves on his average, but the concern is that he can only provide batting average at this point. His power is likely not going to be enough to offset his currently poor numbers.
I wouldn’t drop Bohm outright, but I would be looking for a buyer who expects a recovery from the young hitter.
Kyle Schwarber was the first of what-many-expect to be an overhaul by the Chicago Cubs in the coming year, and he was given the opportunity to shine with the Washington Nationals. Simply put, he has been an absolute disaster at the plate.
With the length of the 2020 season being only 60 games, I like to point to it as a potential outlier. “Potential.” There are instances where it was an indicator as to what lies ahead. For Schwarber, that was a sub-.200 batting average that has resulted in… a sub-.200 batting average.
Dominic Smith was a breakout darling in 2020, but his numbers — like the aforementioned Schwarber’s — were always going to be questioned in 2021. Unlike Schwarber, Smith is showing us that 2020 was more of an outlier than the start of a new trend, as he went from batting an impressive .316 to a paltry .230.
Smith won’t steal bases — he has one in his career — and his power has never resulted in more than 11 home runs in a season. If his average can’t recover, he has little value to a fantasy roster.
Pitchers to Sell
Because of how impressive Lucas Giolito was for 2019 and 2020, it’s always difficult to target him as someone I don’t want on my fantasy team. Yet, here we are.
Giolito’s strikeout rate is still high — which is critical in most formats simply because it means he won’t destroy a fantasy team — but it has ticked down compared to the last two seasons. So has the velocity on his fastball. Not surprisingly, his ERA, xERA, and FIP are all the highest of this three-year span.
Giolito is obviously talented enough to put together a better season going forward, but there are warning signs that he might have hit his peak. I’d be looking to sell.
Ian Anderson was a fantasy baseball treasure in 2020, but almost everyone understood that his sub-2.00 ERA was not going to carry into another full season. As expected, his statistics have regressed to the mean, and he is now hovering around “normalcy.”
Why, then, am I listing him as a “Sell-Low” candidate? Because of the further regression, that is likely.
Anderson is pitching to a 3.46 ERA, but his xERA is more than one run higher — 4.55. If he were to creep toward that number, it means that his rest-of-season ERA will be well above 4.00. I would rather move him now before the potential collapse as, even if he avoids disaster, it’s unlikely he thrives over the remaining months of the season.
Mike Minor’s career numbers are all over the place, but fantasy managers were viewing him as a potential sleeper for 2021. It hasn’t materialized. Instead, Minor’s ERA is a bloated 5.75, while his strikeout rate has dropped since last season. His walk rate is also at the highest of his career.
Whatever value Minor appeared to have to enter the season — most likely, as a bounceback candidate — has now been drained. He’s not worth owning in most standard formats.
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