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The Watchlist: Spencer Strider, Brandon Drury, AJ Puk (2022 Fantasy Baseball)

by Ben Rosener
May 13, 2022
Spencer Strider

This is “The Watchlist.”

The Watchlist is a weekly column designed to help you monitor and pick up players in the coming weeks. Whether they’re waiver wire or trade targets, these are the players you’ll want to add now before becoming the hot waiver commodity or trade target in a week or two.

Using underlying and advanced metrics, “The Watchlist” will help you get ahead of the competition in your league and reap the rewards later from your pickups.

The players could be anyone from a prospect in an Ideal situation close to the Majors, a reliever in a saves+holds league, or even a starter doing well with misleading surface-level stats like ERA.

They might even be hitters with quality underlying stats. Or they could be none of those types of players and a different kind of player entirely. The point is that they’ll help you find success in your fantasy league while staying ahead of the curve of your league mates.

The payoff might not be immediate, but they should eventually provide significant value, more often than not.

These are some of those players for this week.

Spencer Strider (RP – ATL)

It seems more like a matter of “when” instead of “if” Spencer Strider will enter Atlanta’s rotation picture.

The team’s four best starters, Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, and Charlie Morton, all have six starts each.

After that quarter, the National League East club has mixed and matched, with three different starters taking the mound and a fourth pitcher, Jesse Chavez, used as an opener.

Among the traditional starters, the results haven’t been ideal:

Those are rather small sample sizes, especially in the case of Muller, but that Atlanta hasn’t found a consistent fifth starter certainly isn’t helping the defending champs.

Enter Strider, who has been excellent when called upon. The right-hander has surrendered just four earned runs in 16.2 innings spread over six appearances this season. If you’re doing the math at home, that comes out at a 2.16 ERA. He’s also racked up 24 strikeouts compared to nine walks. If you’re still doing the math at home, that comes out to a 36.4% strikeout rate.

In fact, the 24-year-old actually pitched after Chavez as the bulk pitcher, following the veteran’s appearance as an opener. Strider struck out eight of the 16 batters he faced that day while scattering four hits in four shutout innings. It’s potentially a preview of what’s to come in longer stints. Four of the right-hander’s six appearances have lasted at least three innings this season.

Armed with a four-seam fastball averaging 98.5 MPH and a slider sporting a 42.9% whiff rate, Strider possesses exciting fantasy upside with his ability to miss bats and sport a low WHIP and ERA.

And it’s not just the slider that misses bats. The four-seamer does too.

Best Four-Seam Fastball Whiff Rates, Minimum 150 Four-Seamers Thrown:

If you have the bench space, pick up Strider now. You’ll be getting a pitcher with top-30 fantasy upside at his position.

And, even if he doesn’t spend the entire year in the rotation, his stuff is simply too good to be utilized in a non-key role. If he’s not in the rotation, Strider could be a valuable multi-inning reliever for fantasy managers, specifically those in saves+holds leagues. Think Strider’s current teammate Collin McHugh when McHugh was in Tampa Bay last season.

Brandon Drury (2B,3B,DH,LF,RF – CIN)

Like All Reds veterans, Drury’s fantasy potential could be impacted positively or negatively by a mid-season trade. Still, as long as he is in Cincinnati’s lineup, he’ll continue to provide useful fantasy production.

In 99 plate appearances this season, Drury is batting .267 with a .354 on-base percentage, six home runs, and a .912 OPS.

He’s also (unsurprisingly) thrived at Great American Ballpark.

The veteran has logged 46 plate appearances at home this season and is batting .350 with a .450 on-base percentage, three home runs, an 8.7% walk rate, and just a 21.7% strikeout rate.

Most notable, however, in Drury’s rise to fantasy relevance this season is his newfound ability to make consistent hard contact, particularly against four-seam fastballs. The infielder never logged an overall hard-hit rate north of 39% before 2021. His hard-hit rate is up to 51.6% this season, good for being in the 90th percentile league-wide.

What’s more, he’s punishing four-seamers, which certainly doesn’t hurt for fantasy purposes.

Brandon Drury vs Four-Seam Fastballs By Season:

  • 2019: -11 run value, .309 xwOBA, 44.4% hard-hit rate, 614 pitches seen
  • 2020: -2 run value, .274 xwOBA, 27.3% hard-hit rate, 52 pitches seen
  • 2021: -3 run value, .199 xwOBA, 72.7% hard-hit rate, 89 pitches seen
  • 2022: +4 run value, .477 xwOBA, 45.5% hard-hit rate, 123 pitches seen

To make matters even better and make Drury even more valuable for fantasy managers, the infielder is eligible at second base, third base, and in the outfield in Yahoo leagues. He’s also shifted to both shortstop and first base late in games this season. While it remains to be seen if he’ll see more action at both positions moving forward, his versatility makes him a more-than-useful fantasy bench option in more shallow leagues.

Moreover, Drury is registering barrels at a higher rate than ever before, suggesting more power might be coming, especially with all those home games in Cincinnati.

So far, the infielder has logged 11 barrels and a 17.2% barrel rate this season. He’s only ever topped a 7.0% barrel rate in a season once, and his career-high for barrels is 28. But with increases in both his barrel rate and hard-hit rate, he looks like a breakout fantasy candidate. Add him now before his power numbers become even more impressive.

AJ Puk (RP – OAK)

Long viewed as Oakland’s next potential ace, AJ Puk might just be the closer of the future in the Bay Area. And the not too distant future at that.

If Oakland continues to trade veterans and build for the future, Lou Trivino and Dany Jimenez could be dealt sometime before the trade deadline. Of course, that’s all entirely speculative on my part, but they might be Oakland’s best trade chips not named Frankie Montas and Sean Murphy.

At any rate, Puk could be the closer by July, if not sooner, should Jimenez (who has seemingly already overtaken Trivino as the top ninth-inning option) struggle.

And it’s not hard to see why Puk might eventually claim that role, as throwing more sliders the pitch had the same usage rate as his four-seam fastball entering play on Thursday at 42.7% has clearly worked well for the right-hander.

The slider and the four-seam fastball have been instrumental in the former sixth-overall pick logging some elite metrics so far. The reliever has logged a 0.64 ERA and 15 strikeouts through 14 innings. And if his expected metrics are anything to go by, those metrics might actually underscore how effective Puk has been. Admittedly, it’s a small sample size, but it’s certainly not surprising given the upside the 27-year-old showed as a starting pitching prospect.

AJ Puk’s Percentile Rankings Entering Play On Thursday:

  • Hard-Hit Rate, 96th (25%)
  • xSLG: 95th (.276)
  • xwOBA: 94th (.233)
  • xERA: 94th (1.85)
  • Barrel rate: 89th (3.1%)
  • Whiff Rate: 82nd (32.2%)

Much of that success has come thanks to his slider and four-seam fastball pairing, which has been devastatingly effective this season. The slider is his primary bat-missing offering, and it’s certainly done its job in that regard.

  • AJ Puk’s Slider In 2022: 42.7% usage rate, .158 average, .150 xBA, .162 wOBA, .140 xwOBA, 44.2% whiff rate
  • AJ Puk’s Four-Seamer In 2022: 42.7% usage rate, .130 average, .206 xBA, .214 wOBA, .283 xwOBA, 24.3% whiff rate

But the fastball has played its part as well. It’s been elite at limiting hard contact. Among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 80 four-seam fastballs this season, Puk’s had the 20th-lowest hard-hit rate at 31.3%. It also has an average exit velocity of just 82.1 MPH, which is more than notable considering the pitch’s average velocity was at 96.1 MPH as of the beginning of play on Thursday.

In fact, the slider hasn’t been hit all that hard either, with a 16.7 MPH hard-hit rate and an 86.4 MPH average exit velocity.

Limiting hard contact, especially in Oakland’s cavernous home park, and missing bats are certainly two ideal abilities to have as a closer. Puk has shown that he can do both at a high level. If you have the bench space, Puk is an intriguing saves stash. In saves+holds leagues, he’s even more valuable right now as he’s already established himself as part of the late-inning mix for the A’s.

Christian Walker (1B – ARI)

Walker has tallied six home runs through 121 plate appearances entering play on Thursday. He’s also hitting just .187.

Of the two, the home run production looks like it will continue.

The 31-year-old has registered 14 barrels and a 17.1% barrel rate through those 121 plate appearances. He’s also in the 97th percentile league-wide in xSLG (.625). He’s currently sporting a 50% hard-hit rate that would qualify as a personal best were the season to end today.

However, will the batting average continue as is? Probably not.

Walker’s sparkling hard-hit rate is excellent in a vacuum, but it becomes even more significant considering the veteran isn’t swinging and missing too much in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t a situation where a high strikeout rate makes a barrel rate look slightly better due to fewer batted balls. The first baseman is striking out at his career’s second-lowest rate (20.7%). What’s more, Walker’s 20.9% chase rate is on track to be a new career-best. It’s previously never finished below 24%.

Throw in a highly unlucky BABIP (.184), and you have a candidate for some serious positive regression. Arguably more positive regression than any other hitter in the league.

He’s sporting one of the league’s lowest BABIPs. The slugger is one of eight batters to have a BABIP south of .200.

Lowest BABIP Metrics As Of The Beginning Of Play Thursday:

Even more production is coming for Walker. Add him now before his batting average (and other metrics) inevitably start to rise.

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