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Fantasy Baseball Second-Year Player Primer: Hitters (2022)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Nov 6, 2021

I know it’s early November, but the fantasy baseball itch just isn’t going away for me right now. After conducting a dynasty league conversation with my colleague/good friend Mike Maher the other week, I wanted to get back into writing. As longtime readers know I love rookies. Below are some end-of-year write-ups on 10 rookie hitters from the 2021 season. Of course, each parapgraph includes an eye towards their 2022 value as well.

If audio content is more your thing then I recommend the below podcast with Carmen Maiorano where we discussed some of the very same players, among others. It’s a quick-hitting, 30-minute show that I started towards the end of the regular season. In its infancy, subscribing and rating/reviewing goes a really long way if you enjoy it.

I’ll likely do a similar rookie pitchers piece in the coming week or so. For now, remember to reach out on Twitter with questions anytime over at @toomuchtuma.

Wander Franco (SS – TB)
Of course, we’ll be starting with the wunderkind. Franco got off to a slow start in his first taste of big league action, but he quickly rallied to produce some historic results down the stretch. The highlight was a 43-game on-base streak that tied HOFer Frank Robinson for the longest such performance by a player aged 20 or younger. Even including that rough start, Franco became just the 11th rookie (again, age 20 or younger) to produce as high of an OPS+ (120) in as many plate appearances (308).

The turning point came in late July, when “Wandervision” began refusing to strike out. From July 30th through the end of the regular season he had the lowest K% in baseball (6.4%). The interesting part? It came with a .203 ISO. That type of power production combined with such a low strikeout rate is reserved for hitters such as Jose Altuve, Freddie Freeman, Juan Soto, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The more interesting part? All of them had a K% of at least 10% or higher. Franco is a downright special hitter who I expect will be a 3rd/4th round pick in 2022 drafts.

Jarred Kelenic (OF – SEA)
The year-long results were ugly; a .181/.265/.350 with a 28.1 K% overall. Kelenic’s Statcast page did suggest he was a bit unlucky (.270 wOBA compared to .307 xwOBA), but obviously the expected stats were still dreadful. September presented some optimism, at least. Kelenic hit .248/.331/.524 with a 135 wRC+ and 7 HR, 3 SB, 24.6 K%, 10.2 BB% in the season’s final month. Another good sign was a season-long BB% that finished in the 61st percentile of all hitters. 

Furthermore, Kelenic also became the youngest Mariner to have a two-homer game since A-Rod back in 1996. It isn’t as if his rookie year was devoid of any positives. Yet it’s impossible to enter 2022 relying on him in to play a meaningful role in redraft leagues. Personally, I think that September slash line could be indicative of what we see from him throughout his career; a low average with plus on-base skills, streaky power, some speed, and a flare for the dramatic. He reminds me of a lesser version of 2102-14 Bryce Harper.

Keibert Ruiz (C – WAS)
Ruiz was considered a top 100 prospect for several years, but he never hit like it in the upper minors until this season. The 23-year-old has always had elite contact skills, but the game-power didn’t come until he changed his swing at last summer’s alternate training site, becoming more upright in an attempt to do more damage on batted balls.

The change worked as Ruiz hit .311/.381/.631 (27:23 K:BB!!) in 52 games at Triple-A before a midseason trade to the Nationals (in the mega blockbuster that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers). Ruiz kept slugging for Washington’s Triple-A organization until he was finally recalled down the stretch. He struggled initially before going on a heater in late September. Keep in mind that catchers have a difficult development curve upon reaching the bigs due to the defensive demands of the position. I expect Ruiz to flirt with low-end C1 value in early ’22.

Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B – PIT)
I remain convinced that Hayes’ season would’ve played out very differently if he didn’t injure his wrist in the season’s opening weekend. The 24-year-old was eventually able to return in the middle of the summer, but his bat simply wasn’t the same. He was shut down in late September and as of early October was still looking for answers. Hayes managed to convert 9-of-10 stolen base attempts but posted a weak .689 OPS with just six homers in 96 games. He’ll be impossible to trust in draft next year, but I wouldn’t want to sell in dynasty formats at this time. For real life purposes he remains a future Gold Glove award winner (98th percentile outs above average on Baseball Savant).

Dylan Carlson (OF – STL)
Something I write about often is the idea that not all prospect rankings are created equal. What I mean by that is some prospects receive a top-25 ranking on major publications because they have immense upside. Others are considered more likely to last as a big league regular, even if stardom doesn’t seem likely. Carlson is obviously too young to fully abandon hope for in the latter description, but I’m beginning to think he profiles more as the former.

The good news? He undoubtedly improved as the year went on. Though his OBP remained consistent at .343 from the first half to the second half, Carlson’s SLG increased from .391 to .505 and his wRC+ improved from 104 to 127. 11 of his 18 homers came in the second half as well. Statcast doesn’t like the contact he makes as he’s in the bottom 9th percentile in hard-hit rate. His current skill set sets him up to be a fine everyday player for the Cardinals, but not necessarily a difference-making fantasy option.

Andrew Vaughn (OF – CWS)
Vaughn’s rookie season can best be described as an “up and down” one. The 23-year-old reached the major leagues after just 55 games in the minors and played regularly for a division champion while learning a new position on the fly. With that perspective in mind, a 94 wRC+ isn’t the end of the world. But it also wasn’t what the most optimistic fantasy players were hoping for, myself included.

Throughout the season’s first three months we kept waiting for Vaughn to happen, but he hit just .222/.299/.389 with a strikeout rate over 27% through June 27th. Then came the hand load adjustment that turned things around. From June 29th through August 8th Vaughn was sensational, posting a 163 wRC+ with a 14.3 K%. It seemed as if things had been figured out. Young hitter struggles early on before adjusting to the league and turning things around? We’ve seen it a million times.

Unfortunately, the league might’ve quickly adjusted back. From August 10th through the end of the regular season Vaughn posted a 31 wRC+ with a paltry .057 ISO. The White Sox elected to start him in just 1-of-4 postseason games before they were eliminated. As of this writing it’s hard to say exactly what happened. The K% was only 18.5%. The average exit velocity was similar to his dominant stretch. Perhaps he was fatigued. It’s a project I plan to dive deeper in on throughout the winter. Assuming the cost is reasonable in ’22 drafts, though, I’ll be willing to buy back in on a fantastic prospect who was rushed through the system and still displayed flashes of excellence.

Alex Kirilloff (1B/OF – MIN)
Wrist injuries, man. Similar to Hayes, I remain convinced that Kirilloff would’ve had a fantastic rookie campaign if it wasn’t for that damn injury. The lefty slugger admittedly started slow (with strong underlying numbers!) before homering four times in a three-game span in early May. Then tragedy struck, at least in the eyes of Kirilloff stans everywhere.

Before his wrist injury Kirilloff posted a 96.5 mph average exit velocity with a .317 xBA. Afterwards, those stats dipped to 89.7 mph and a .281 xBA. To be clear, those figures are still impressive, but they weren’t his high-end outcome. In late July he was shut down for the season as the Twins wrapped up their disappointing campaign. I’m eager to buy back in assuming the offseason health reports are encouraging.

Randy Arozarena (OF – TB)
Here’s the fascinating thing about Arozarena’s 2021 – both parties were right. Okay, yes, if we are going by the actual results then the truthers would be awarded the W. That’s because the darling of the 2020 playoffs got it done for fantasy managers this season, going 20/20 with a respectable .274 average, a strong 94 runs, and a nice 69 RBI. He was especially hot in the second half, registering a .935 OPS with a 158 wRC+. I’d say he produced.

However, we also have those loyal to the “process” – fantasy managers who continue to study the underlying trends even when the actual results feel definitive. This is where I come in, and I must point out that Arozarena’s 2021 is one to bet against moving forward. His .363 BABIP was the fifth highest figure in all of baseball. The 16th percentile xSLG and 49.2% ground ball rate make you question the home run total. By no means do I feel as if he was a flash in the pan who got hot in October 2020 and that was it. No, Arozarena is a quality big league player. I just won’t be targeting him in 2022 redraft leagues based off what folks will be willing to pay for his ’21 results.

Jonathan India (2B – CIN)
It was a strange minor league journey for India, the No. 5 overall pick from the 2018 draft who eventually fell off top 100 prospect lists only to resurface in 2021 with a Rookie-of-the-Year-worthy campaign. India received some deep league buzz back in spring training, but a slow start led to many of his supporters moving on. Everything changed in late May, however, once the 24-year-old transitioned to a subtler toe tap while at the plate. From May 30th through the end of the year India hit .282/.390/.491 with a 134 wRC+.

He served as Cincinnati’s leadoff hitter for most of the year and led all rookies in OBP (.376) and runs scored (98). The on-base skills are extremely impressive, though his power profile leaves a bit to be desired. For 2022 purposes, the hardware he’ll likely receive in a few weeks could make him overvalued, especially in leagues that use batting average over OBP. I’ll likely advocate for fading him in traditional 5×5 roto, but my tune changes when points leagues and OBP formats are brought into question.

Ryan Mountcastle (1B/OF – BAL)
It was an interesting season for Mounty, who wound up not being as well-rounded of a hitter as we thought he might be after his 2020 debut. The .333 BA was always going to regress, but Mountcastle struggled with strikeouts and inconsistencies throughout the ’21 campaign. His K% had a very positive trend throughout the summer, continuously trending downwards until it sky rocketed back up in September.

He still wound up leading all rookies with 33 homers, and my suspicion is he’ll wind up being a streaky power hitter who is best deployed in roto leagues (more of a set-and-forget lineup decision). Poor OBP skills also hurt Mounty is points/OBP leagues.

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

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