Fantasy Baseball: 3 Things We Learned in Week 2
Baseball fans love their stats. We devour them, dissect them, and build our fantasy rosters around them. Each week of 2021 baseball season, we will be gifted with another statistical sample size of pitches, plate appearances, and playing time. Knowing it often takes hundreds or even thousands of pitches or batted-ball events for trends to normalize, how should fantasy managers adjust to the ebbs and flows of weekly player performance?
Each week during this season, this piece will look at trends that have emerged over the past week and determine if it is signal or noise moving forward. What is prescriptive in helping build winning fantasy teams and what can be ignored as small sample size noise? Hopefully, we can make sense of what has just happened to help us make smarter roster and free agent budget decisions.
Let's take a look at some of the data from the first scoring period of the fantasy baseball season.
Byron Buxton Bonds
After many years of not living up expectations, suffering injuries, and generally busting the hopes of countless fantasy managers, Byron Buxton has certainly started to put it all together in the early part of 2021.
You can't find a stat leaderboard anywhere that doesn't have Buxton near the top. Home runs (5), batting average (.481), on-base percentage (.548), slugging percentage (1.185!!), offensive wins above replacement (1.1) -- Buxton is top-three in all of them. And while he has only stolen one base so far this year, I'm sure his fantasy managers aren't complaining too much about that.
If we could write a definition for what it means to crush the ball, Buxton's first 10 games would be in the dictionary. He is third in the league in average exit velocity (98.2 miles per hour), third in average distance of his batted balls (230 feet), 11th in number of balls hit over 95 miles per hour (16), third in hard-hit percentage (72.7%), and second in both barrels per plate appearance and barrels per batted ball event.
If we look at Buxton compared to other major leaguers these first couple weeks, there are not many places we can nitpick. Here is Buxton's offensive profile, courtesy of Baseball Savant.
Perhaps he could walk a little bit more, but that's likely to come if he keeps hitting like this. He needs to improve on his chasing of pitches, but he has had no problem making contact so far. And as you can see, his sprint speed is still elite, so if he ever stops hitting home runs and merely hits singles or doubles, the stolen bases are still likely to be there.
Fantasy managers have waited a long time to see this kind of production from Buxton, so I hope you have some shares out there. This pace is clearly unsustainable, but I want to be on board when Buxton finally puts it all together.
Velocity Gains and Losses
By this point, most starting pitchers have two starts worth of data that we can begin to analyze for this young season. And while it will take many more pitches and batted ball events to normalize these pitchers' skills for 2021, we can begin to look at velocity as a leading indicator of where some of these pitchers might be headed.
One early reference for me this season has been the Twitter account of NBC Sports Edge's Matt Williams. Matt keeps a detailed and ongoing list of velocity gainers and losers compared to 2020 velocity, and the results so far have been quite interesting.
Updated velocity chart for 4/11
(includes games up to 4/10)
Split into separate gain/loss charts
NEW readings in YELLOW pic.twitter.com/JCHN90X5lW
— Matt Williams (@MattWi77iams) April 11, 2021
What we see here (starters in blue, relievers in brown) are the opposite ends of the miles per hour (mph) gains spectrum. Players like Chris Devenski, Keynan Middleton, and Reyes Moronta have lost the most velocity in the early going, while players like Dylan Bundy, Kyle Crick, and Tejay Antone have kicked it up a few notches this year. Let's investigate a few key starters on this list to see where we might want to invest.
Dylan Bundy (+2.9 mph) - Bundy is someone who has always had the "stuff" but has never been able to put it all together. That might be changing this year if the underlying metrics from his first two starts are any indication. The numbers have all been moving in the right direction for Bundy for some time, but could this be the year he takes the leap? In 2016, Bundy finished the year with 8.53 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), a 21.9% strikeout rate (K%), and an 8.9% walk rate (BB%). Last year, those numbers had improved to 9.87 K/9, 27% K%, and 6.4% BB%. And it's not just the fastball that has gained two mph in velocity. Bundy's sinker has also gained more than two mph and has positioned him well for the season with a deadly second pitch.
Carlos Rodon (+2.4 mph) - The Chicago White Sox surely didn't know what they were going to get with Rodon only starting nine games over the last two years due to injury. But so far, Rodon has roared back with a vengeance, including with his fastball (95.7 mph; previous career-high 94.4) and changeup (86.4 mph; previous career-high 85.1). If healthy, this could be a coming-out party for Rodon. Still only 28 years old -- the typical beginning of a pitcher's prime -- Rodon deserves to be on fantasy rosters if he keeps inducing swings and missed like he did against the Seattle Mariners in his first start (19 whiffs in 95 pitches).
Luis Castillo (-1.6 mph) - Castillo has certainly been a mixed bag through his first two starts. He was shelled on opening day for eight earned runs in 3.1 innings pitched with no strikeouts and negative 16 points in DFS (not that I'm complaining or anything). His next start was the opposite of that, pitching a shutout through seven innings with five strikeouts and a win. Williams tracked Castillo at -2.6 mph after his first start, which sounded several alarms, but he seemed to move back in the right direction after start number two. He is someone to monitor to make sure he doesn't give up last year's gains in fastball velocity (97.6 mph) and K/9 (11.44).
Add Avisail Garcia
Avisail Garcia (4% rostered in Yahoo leagues) - Garcia may be on the cusp of hitting himself into more playing time for the Milwaukee Brewers. Once the Brew Crew added Jackie Bradley, it became unclear how the rest of the outfield would shake out beyond Christian Yelich, but Garcia's batted ball profile is making it awfully hard for the Brewers to peg him as a fourth outfielder.
Garcia ranks top 10 among all MLB hitters in both barrels per plate appearance and barrels per batted ball event. Eight players match both of those descriptions, including elite hitters like Buxton, Shohei Ohtani, J.D. Martinez, and Nelson Cruz. So Garcia has positioned himself as one of the hard contact specialists through the first 10 days of the season, including ranking top-40 in both batted balls at 95-plus miles per hour (13) and average exit velocity (93.4 mph).
There is, however, one major red flag that could likely prevent a full-blown breakout if it continues.
That 5.6 degrees is Garcia's average launch angle through his 22 batted balls so far this year (126th among qualified batters, courtesy of Baseball Savant). I'm sure you are aware that you can't clear many fences -- or many infielders' heads for that matter -- if you don't hit the ball higher off the ground. It could just be noisy through the first few games, but it is definitely something to monitor.
If Christian Yelich's recent back issues persist, Garcia could be looking at an everyday role for Milwaukee and will need a spot on as many of your fantasy rosters as you can find.