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20 Things To Watch For In Week 17 (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Jul 23, 2021

Greetings from New Orleans! Well, by the time you’re reading this that’s where I’ll be, which is why this week’s article is coming out on Friday as opposed to Saturday.

The MLB season is chugging right along. For this week’s piece I’m going to do something a little different in my never-ending attempt to keep things fresh. The plan is to check in on some rookies and sophomores. Longtime readers know me as a big prospect fan, but I sometimes feel as if we forget about these guys once they exhaust prospect eligibility.

Of course, I’ll still be intertwining some specific Week 17 tidbits to set you up for success. Now is the time when many fantasy baseball managers begin to lose focus. Make sure you aren’t one of them.

Remember to reach out on Twitter with questions anytime @toomuchtuma.

*Note that many of the stats listed below are from when the bulk of this article was written mid-week*

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1. Chris Sale‘s comeback
Boston’s ace southpaw was electric during Tuesday’s rehab start for Double-A Portland, totaling 3 2/3 hitless innings while striking out six. The lanky lefty was reportedly sitting 97 mph with his fastball and even touched 98 at one point. Now 16 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Sale is trending towards an early-August return to the Red Sox rotation. I don’t expect him back in Week 17, but his remaining rehab starts are worth monitoring and he needs to be rostered in every single fantasy league.

2. Checking in on the offensive environment
As expected, league-wide BABIP has increased each month, up from .283 in April to .299 in July (entering Wednesday). League-wide batting average, OPS, wRC+, etc. have all seen season-highs this month. Something that hasn’t seen an increase in July, though, has been HR/FB%, which fell from 14.5% in June to 14.0% in July. For comparison, this number was 14.8% in 2020, and it was 15.3% in 2019. Perhaps things will continue trending more towards where they have been the past two years, but I think the de-juiced ball is playing a minor role here. Basically, offense is way up from where we were at in April, but things certainly haven’t reached the epic heights they did back in 2019 (AKA, the height of the juiced-ball era).

Second-Year Players

3 -4. Tigers SP

Casey Mize
It’s undeniable that the 24-year-old has taken a massive step forward this season. The former No. 1 pick out of Auburn posted a disastrous 6.99 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP in his first seven big league starts last season. He then struggled in two starts back in mid-April, but since April 29th (14 starts) he has yet to allow more than three earned runs in an outing. As for what has made the difference for him, it has been a few things.

First, Baseball Savant is crediting him with introducing a slider this year, which has been his best swing-and-miss pitch. Second, he’s throwing harder — Mize’s average fastball velocity is up from 93.7 mph in 2020 to 94.2 mph this year. Lastly, it sounds like moving from the middle of the rubber to the first base side has helped the youngster unlocked his command. Mize’s walk rate is down to 6.8% in ’21 from 9.8% in ’20. The profile still isn’t perfect. His Baseball Savant page (shown below) still has plenty of blue in it. But from where he was last year, this has been a huge season of growth for him.

Tarik Skubal
Mize and Skubal will always be linked together in my eyes since their call-ups were announced on the same day in 2020. The duo both struggled in their first taste of the bigs but they’re each improving in 2021. Skubal is coming off an impressive outing against the Rangers on Tuesday, spinning six innings of one-run ball while striking out four and not allowing a walk. In addition to one being right-handed and the other being a lefty, Mize and Skubal differ stylistically as well. Mize is more consistent on a start-to-start basis, but Skubal has the superior strikeout upside (109 to 79 despite logging five fewer innings).

Like his teammate, Skubal struggled in April, but since May began the 24-year-old has a 3.59 ERA with a 3.57 xFIP in 13 starts. The biggest change has been the re-introduction of his changeup. In this piece on Pitcher List, Chad Young describes the evolution of this pitch — developing a splitter at Driveline over the offseason before eventually combining it with his 2020 change for maximum effectiveness. Additionally, Skubal’s curveball has flat out improved (.441 xwOBA in 2020 compared to .205 this season). The combination of strikeout upside with a legitimate four-pitch mix gives him the higher ceiling over Mize in dynasty leagues moving forward.

5-6. Corner Infielders

Ryan Mountcastle
I’m sensing a theme here of players who started slow before heating up. From May 16th through June 28th Mountcastle hit .323/.378/.631 with 11 homers and 33 RBI in 143 plate appearances. In 60 PAs since then he’s batting just .135 without a homer (entering Wednesday).

I’m beginning to wonder if the full-season stat line — .247 average with 14 homers, four steals, and a .724 OPS — is who he’s going to be moving forward, with some spiked production mixed in like what we saw for most of May and June. I was mildly bullish on Mounty entering the year because he always hit at every stop in the minors, so maybe there will eventually be further development that takes place in the bigs. For now, consider him streaky.

Ke’Bryan Hayes
This one pains me to write, but my preseason National League Rookie of the Year choice hasn’t lived up to expectations in 2021. The 24-year-old has actually strung together three consecutive multi-hit games entering Wednesday, which has improved his triple slash line to .275/.355/.430. Unfortunately, Hayes is over performing his expected stats on Baseball Savant (.343 wOBA compared to .311 xwOBA). Subjectively, I wonder if the wrist injury he suffered back in early-April is still having an affect on his ability to damage on batted balls. This has me nervous for his redraft value, but long-term he’s a player I’m still excited about. Oh, and for real life purposes don’t forget about his glove. Statcast has him in the 91st percentile in outs above average.

7-9. More pitchers!

Ian Anderson
The 23-year-old is currently on the injured list due to shoulder inflammation, and the Braves might rest him a bit longer than necessary in order to give him a break during his first full season in the majors. Anderson has produced as one of the best rookies in all of baseball this year, registering a 3.56 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 96 innings pitched. While not as pristine as the 1.95 mark he posted in his abbreviated 2020 campaign, Anderson is settling in as a fixture of Atlanta’s rotation. He was always destined for some regression, but suddenly losing some of the vertical break on his curveball hasn’t helped matters. Anderson was most known for his changeup upon arriving to the majors, and the success of the curve was a big surprise to many. Back in April he was struggling to maintain a consistent release point. What we have here is a young pitcher still finding himself in the big leagues, yet the current results are certainly serviceable.

James Karinchak
Back in spring training “Special K” was one of my biggest breakout candidates. He was already dominant in 2020, but it was my belief that the closer role in Cleveland would belong solely to him. Of course, Emmanuel Clase has been heavily involved in the ninth inning as well this season, so Karinchak hasn’t been as valuable as I expected in leagues that only count saves. If you play with holds as well then the 25-year-old has salvaged some value (10 saves, nine holds).

His strikeout rate is down from an unholy 48.6% in 2020 to “just” 40.8% this year (still 98th percentile), and a lot of the Statcast numbers are slightly down as well. That’s okay since his rookie year was one of the most insane stretches of relief pitcher performance that I can remember. He was always going to regress somewhat. “Special K” hasn’t been as sharp since late May (4.79 ERA) but we know relievers are volatile. Walks remain an issue but he’s still nearly impossible to string together hits against. If he ever gets the majority of save opportunities he still profiles as a top-10 fantasy closer.

EDIT: Karinchak blew another save chance on Thursday, allowing two runs in the ninth inning. Not good!

Trevor Rogers
Again, we have a starter who posted disastrous results in 2020 who rebounded this season. I was late to the Rogers breakout as he wasn’t one of the second-year pitchers I studied over the offseason. The 23-year-old has been great, though, as he’s yet to allow more than three earned runs in any of his 19 starts this season. Rogers relies on his dazzling changeup, which complements his four-seam fastball very well (as you can see below), but his shiny 2.37 ERA isn’t fully backed up by his 3.32 xERA. That isn’t anything to be overly worried about, however. Rogers has over performed the expected stats show he’s legit.

One concern for him moving forward could be an innings shutdown. But I wonder if the Marlins are just keeping his starts abbreviated (he hasn’t pitched more than five innings since June 15th). Currently sitting at 106 1/3 IP, it’s worth mentioning that he totaled 136 1/3 in the minors in 2019.

First-Year Players

10-12. The Bats

Andrew Vaughn
It has been an up-and-down season for the rookie, who has started 69 of his 74 games in the outfield (after never playing the position in college or the minors). Predictably, Vaughn has been a below-average defender, but he has had moments of offensive success. He just hasn’t strung them together enough to be a difference-making fantasy player. He’s only hitting .247/.312/.433 for the season but since June 16th (arbitrary endpoint) that slash line is up to .295/.330/.526 (good for a 132 wRC+!). The K% has fallen as the season has gone along and he’s just straight up hitting the ball better as well. This strikes me as someone who will be a hidden value in 2022 redraft leagues.

K% ISO
Through 6/15 27.1% .161
Since 6/16 16.5% .232

Wander Franco
Sigh. The consensus top prospect in baseball had a thrilling major league debut, but things have been downhill since then. The xwOBA has decreased alongside the walk rate. Meantime, the strikeout rate has gone up. Worse, Statcast doesn’t even suggest that Franco has gotten unlucky or anything. He just isn’t hitting well right now. Keep in mind he doesn’t turn 21 until next March. It hasn’t worked out for redraft leagues, but there is zero reason to worry in dynasty formats.

Jonathan India
Here we have a player who wasn’t hyped the way Vaughn or Franco were, but he has out performed them both. The former first-round pick fell out of every top-100 prospect list following a rough 2019 in the minors. He had some fantasy steam heading into this year, but he struggled badly early on. Yet since undergoing a minor mechanical tweak in late May, the 24-year-old is on fire. Basically, as shown below, India is using a far more subtle toe tap at the plate (as opposed to the massive leg kick he used in the spring. Since May 30th he’s batting .312/.457/.478 with five homers and five steals. Of course, there isn’t a ton of power to be had, but the on-base skills are legit and it adds up to a 158 wRC+ over this time.

13-15. The Arms

Logan Gilbert
I’ve written about these three pitchers a lot already, but they’ve been the best prospect performers by far this season. Gilbert enters a weekend start against Oakland on a roll over his past eight outings — 41 1/3 innings with 51 strikeouts and a 2.49 ERA. He’s slowly decreased the usage of his curve as the season has gone along, and the results are paying off. I expect a shutdown at some point, but fantasy managers should be enjoying the ride for now!

Alek Manoah
The emotional youngster ruffled some feathers in a June start against the Orioles, throwing at hitters after surrendering four homers in just 3 1/3 innings. He bounced back admirably, however, and he carries a 2.90 ERA into a Week 17 start against the Red Sox. Manoah, currently on the IL with a minor back contusion, has been a bit hit or miss as a rookie. In four of his starts he’s totaled six innings while allowing one run or fewer. In the other four he just hasn’t been as good. Still, the overall results are strong, and keep in mind he had just nine professional games (nine!!) as a professional upon reaching the majors.

Shane McClanahan
Despite my love for Gilbert and Manoah, McClanahan is the one I anticipate being highest on entering ’22, at least considering where I expect his ADP winding up. There’s always a fear that the Rays won’t use their young starters in a traditional role, but that hasn’t been the case with McClanahan, who has made 14 starts entering the weekend. The bad news is he’s only completed six innings in two of them, and my guess is that this is how they’re managing his workload. If the training wheels come off next year and you factor in his elite swinging strike rate, then he’ll start projecting very, very well.

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16-17. Hitters rising back up the ranks

Dominic Smith
Since the beginning of July Smith is batting .305/.373/.627 with five home runs, 14 RBI, and 14 runs scored. He has become the player we thought we were getting after breaking out in 2019-20. The 26-year-old has a 40.9% hard-hit rate for the season, but that’s up to 51.1% in July. Start him with confidence in Week 17.

Gleyber Torres
This is another player I was concerned about the past two months, since the entire baseball world began hitting better but Smith and Torres weren’t. We’re using an arbitrary endpoint here but over his past nine games (entering the weekend), Torres is hitting .290/.361/.645 with three homers and two steals. The sample size isn’t big enough to take anything meaningful away from this, but for a player who we’re dying to see anything from, this is a good sign. At the very least he should remain rostered.

18. Cody Bellinger‘s slide down the rankings
For the final two months of the season would you rather have Bellinger or Joey Votto? Bellinger or Bryan Reynolds? These questions would’ve seemed ridiculous back in March, but in my latest rankings update I have the former MVP just ahead of those two players. Bellinger is currently 99th overall for me, and having him “that high” is basically just a hedge against him going nuclear down the stretch. The Statcast numbers are down across the board. He’s hitting .152 with a .197 xBA. Basically, he’s earned these poor season-long results. I have little confidence to expect a sudden turnaround based on anything other than track record. It’s okay to sit him in Week 17.

19. Kenta Maeda‘s must-start status
The 33-year-old has been quite volatile this season, but following Thursday’s seven innings of three-run ball against the Angels, he has now strung together four solid outings in a row. During this stretch Maeda has a 2.35 ERA backed up by a 2.66 xFIP (plus 31 strikeouts in 23 innings). He draws the red-hot Tigers in Week 17, but I still want to start him.

20. Coors Field check-in
The Rockies play seven road games in Week 17. This isn’t a week to stream your Colorado bats, but we definitely want to use any starting pitchers who line up for starts against them.

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Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

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