Fantasy baseball — Which hot starts are the real deal?
The early portion of the fantasy baseball calendar requires us to discuss players starting the season on a hot streak. Of course, given the possible “juiced ball” trend that might be history repeating, I became dizzy trying to list all the ridiculously successful starts.
Still, some breakouts are merely excellent players looking elite and can be acknowledged. Maybe I could’ve waited a few weeks until these wacky numbers settled to examine the more questionable names, but getting ahead of the rush always is the better choice.
Let’s start with the obvious: Now that the league’s baseballs are laughing at physics again, we’re dealing with astronomically fortunate stats from many known bats.
Plenty of peripheral and indicative stats on which I and many other fantasy people rely are way above normal limits. Last year’s qualified leader in rate of homers per fly ball (HR/FB) was Yelich, at 35.0 percent. Ten qualified players currently have a rate higher than that, and 42 have at least 25 percent.
Also, 15 qualified players carry a .400 BABIP or above, and 51 sit at .350 or better. League average typically hovers near .300.
While fantasy players should always actively look to protect themselves from cooling paces, consider this on a case-by-case basis. The league’s mean does not necessarily reflect each player’s — which represents the main challenge in our rest-of-season prognosis for these early-season achievers.
You’re not just going to blindly sell off Aaron Judge (.394 BABIP, 36.4 percent HR/FB). His indicators actually aren’t far off his norms.
We saw Cody Bellinger (.433/.513/.925, .408 BABIP, 45.0 percent HR/FB) crush it with 39 big flies in 2017, and he’s cut his strikeout rate by more than half of last year’s rate (11.5 percent this season). Assuming he falls back into his career norms in plate discipline, he still has elite OBP potential, and his pop and double-digit steals should stave off any concerns.
Then again, we shouldn’t by default say the same for White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson (league-high .500 BABIP), who has just a 1.7 walk percentage and was never known for taking free passes. However, we can argue the homers and stolen bases might protect his fantasy value when his in-play fortunes cool. So then let’s say this about Tim Beckham (.386), who doesn’t steal enough bases to stave off a severe decline once his batting average drops.
The Twins’ Jorge Polanco (.452 BABIP) also has a 53.5 fly ball percentage, and Pete Alonso (.424) is a known air-lifter and has a 46.2 fly ball percentage so far. Something has to give with these types, considering fly ball bats typically carry lower in-play clips. They would have to buck plenty of trends to keep those elevated skills simultaneously.
As for pitchers, Rockies starter German Marquez (.198 BABIP) is over his head but also building on the late-season revelation from 2018, when he fixed his arm angle on his breaking pitches. He’s still a top-20 fantasy starting pitcher who could be top-10 if he had a different home park.
Miami’s Caleb Smith is a whiff, walk or fly ball pitcher, so while it’s way too favorable now, his .194 BABIP might not climb back too close to .300. His game is about not giving up much in-play action.
Then you have starts like Chris Archer, who’s been falling short of advanced metrics that favor him for years, leaving 92.6 percent of the runners he puts on and allowing a .250 BABIP. His high-K approach is worth backing, but he’ll need to show us he can limit hard contact in the near future for us to have more confidence.
All this isn’t to say these players aren’t putting up somewhat real performances — determining how much exaggeration is the key. Alonso was bought for 30-plus homers depending on a full season. Most of us expected Polanco to spread his wealth across his few categories.
Even in the context of video-game numbers across nearly the entire league, we still must recognize trustworthy names turning things up a notch.
Willson Contreras, C, Cubs: The soon-to-be 27-year-old is already 60 percent of the way toward matching his 2018 homer total, thanks to a 46.4 fly ball percentage, a top-25 barrel rate (21.4 percent) and a career-best (sadly) 9.9 degree launch angle. Given the gap between the J.T. Realmuto/Gary Sanchez tier and the rest of the backstops, the fantasy world left room for one of those mid-priced backstops to burst into the next tier, and even with Contreras’ inflated 46.2 percent HR/FB, the fourth-year bat shows he’s capable of developing thump later in his career — as many catchers do.
Jose Berrios, SP, Twins: So far, he’s cut his walk rate by nearly one free pass from last year’s 2.85 BB/9. He’s of course benefitting from a .185 BABIP and an 83.3 LOB percentage, so worse days are coming, and selling the dip in pace could make sense. But considering some of the shaky names among top starting pitchers, Berrios is pitching like a rock right now, and if your club is built to withstand a bit of ERA giveback, ride it out. He has the diverse pitch mix and strikeout base to remain among the top 15 or 20 starting pitchers, and if he’s working around walks, he might have another level similar to what Blake Snell did last season.
Yoan Moncada, 2B/3B, White Sox: His league-record strikeouts in 2018 came with some bad luck in the form of a league-high called-strikes total. He’s increased his aggressiveness this season with major boosts in 68.4 Z-Swing percentage (swinging at pitches in the strike zone) from 62.0 last year, and 85.3 Z-Contact percentage (contact on swings at pitches in the strike zone) from 80.0, which has led to a near 10 percent improvement in K percentage (24.3). His one steal through 16 games gives me doubts that he’ll reach 20 — a widespread preseason expectation — but continuing this thump could get the once No. 1 overall prospect to 30 homers and 90 RBIs in the middle or top third of this order.
Austin Meadows, OF, Rays: His .375 BABIP isn’t outlandish; Meadows hit plenty of grounders at several minors stops and was expected to favor that skill, not pop. But he’s already matched his 191-plate-appearance power in 2018 with six homers in 68 PAs this year, while more than doubling his walk rate to 11.8 percent. He’s realizing his 20-homer, 20-steal potential in first full-season big league shot.
Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers: The 26-year-old has averaged a robust 93.3 mph on his contact, putting him in the same company as Ronald Acuna Jr. and Javier Baez. Of course, none of his eight home runs has come against lefties, whom the Dodgers avoid him facing anyway, so you should still stick with expectations of him being platoon-centric and enjoy whatever he can offer on top of that while it lasts.
Domingo Santana, OF, Mariners: Santana is rebounding thanks to a 44.2 hard-hit percentage and a career-best average launch angle of 12.9 degrees, along with getting back to going the other way more often. Even with some slowing down, he has a legit shot to repeat his 2017 form.
Maikel Franco, 3B, Phillies: Manager Gabe Kapler seems to want to keep batting him eighth in this stacked lineup, so don’t expect too many runs or RBIs, but Franco aims to keep feasting. He’s going to the opposite field more and changed his swing to incorporate a leg kick that helps with his timing. He’s not necessarily destined for “empty” power, but his homers should remain your primary (if not singular) fantasy expectation.
For some hot starters, we can point to one particular alteration — in approach or mechanics — that has helped.
Tyler Glasnow, SP, Rays: The 6-foot-8 hurler streamlined his delivery with help from 6-foot-7 Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, which has aided his control — a major sticking point from him finally paying off on his top-prospect hype. As long as he keeps attacking the strike zone and trusting his elite stuff, this could be his monster breakthrough.
Luis Castillo, SP, Reds: His improvement is a literal change: His changeup has become a bigger weapon versus lefties, in place of his sinker. Castillo has not yet allowed a barreled ball, but he’ll need to address his 4.74 BB/9 in order to prepare for when his .184 BABIP and 83.3 LOB percentage deflate. Keeping something close to his 16.1 swinging-strike percentage should help.
Matthew Boyd, SP, Tigers: He’s targeting the high portion of the strike zone, as evidenced by his 36.0 K percentage (trailing just Snell, Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole), 36.7 infield-fly ball rate and 46.4 contact on pitches outside the zone with an increased chase rate (31.4 percent). Even when his ERA rises, keep him for the whiffs if you aren’t happy with his trade-market price.
Shane Bieber, SP, Indians: He’ll succeed as long as he feeds that strike zone, but he’s another risky BABIP (.191) and LOB percentage (84.3) case.
Joe Musgrove, SP, Pirates: A .232 BABIP is a big fuel for his 0.81 ERA, but his 8.46 K/9 is a fine increase from 2018, and he’s still forcing plenty of empty hacks (13.3 percent swinging strikes) and pounding the strike zone (64.6 first-strike percentage). With his pitcher-friendly PNC Park home, he could enjoy 150-plus innings of a sub-3.50 ERA if all dots connect.
Collin McHugh, SP, Astros: Bouncing back into the rotation this season, McHugh should at least have your trust for a repeat of 2017 (3.55 ERA, 3.10 K/BB), but you’d be safer expecting his 10.57 K/9 to dip back into single digits as he’s tested as a season-long rotation member.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves: He’s continuing the power gains from widening his leg positioning in his batting stance last summer. He hasn’t broken through higher than sixth in the order, but his glove should keep him in the lineup often, just about guaranteeing 10-plus homers and steals.
Carlos Rodon, SP, White Sox: He’s throwing more sliders so far (41.2 percent) and ditching his sinker. Overexertion risk aside, Rodon has induced a career-best 12.7 swinging-strike rate so far. Even if he doesn’t turn out to be the high-K arm we hoped for several years ago, finding his control could help him to finally reward our patience.
Reasons to doubt
Marcus Stroman, SP, Blue Jays: The grounder-centric hurler has thrown in more sliders, which has helped his K/9 take a major leap forward. Unfortunately, his walk rate so far is a career-worst 3.97 per nine, so he remains a risk to fall off. Same for teammate Aaron Sanchez (2.86 ERA, 8.59 K/9, 5.32 BB/9).
Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals: He’s already cooled off from his big opening weekend, and he’s still hitting just seventh or eighth, but his 5-foot-9 frame might finally produce more power if he sustains his current career-best 13.0 average launch angle. Elevating to a 15-to-20-homer profile, with the possibility for double-digit steals, still would make him at least a useful mixed-league middle infielder.
Jesse Winker, OF, Reds: What questions about his power? The on-base and contact machine already has four homers in 16 games, but the real expectation sees his .191/.269/.447 slash turn around thanks to his elite hit tool, with his home runs in turn tapering off to a pace of 15-to-20 homers in a full season.
Matt Shoemaker, SP, Blue Jays: He spun seven-inning shutout gems against the Tigers and Orioles but came back to earth at the Red Sox and Twins. A .164 BABIP makes him among the luckiest starters so far, but in limited action last year, his 4.94 ERA hid tantalizing 9.58 K/9 and 2.90 BB/9, so he still has plenty of potential for mixed leagues now that he’s healthy.
Jason Heyward, OF, Cubs: The frequent tease owns a 45 percent hard-hit rate, 91.6 mph average exit velocity (top 40 in MLB), and an 18.7 degree average launch angle so far, paces that would mark his career bests in the Statcast era (2015 onward). His frequently retooled swing has often been deeply examined in fantasy circles, and his .306 BABIP is hardly irrational, hovering around the league’s mean. He could clean up even if he doesn’t reach 20 bombs, as he has the talent to hit .300 if things finally click into place.
Trevor Williams, SP, Pirates: I still have concerns that I expressed for Wednesday’s Daily Notes, but Williams is doing much of what he accomplished in 2018, and his baseline looks sturdier than I expected.
Brad Keller, SP, Royals: The sinker-heavy righty’s 2.45 ERA hides a 4.56 BB/9 and an 80.4 LOB percentage, but Keller at least deserves spot-start consideration in mixed leagues while he’s beating the odds.
When considering your rest-of-season expectations for all these names, ask yourself: Is this start the sign of a new, higher floor, or are too many things going right and hiding a dip to come? Set realistic rest-of-season benchmarks.
Test your league’s trade market. Check if your place in the standings can allow you to test whether some of these names will continue rolling.
Next week, I’ll look at some struggling names. In the meantime, if you have other questions about fast-starting names, tweet me @Tim_Heaney.