Fantasy Baseball: 3 Things We Learned in Week 12
Baseball fans love their stats. We devour them, dissect them, and build our fantasy rosters around them. Each week of the 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 twelfth scoring period of the fantasy baseball season.
Willy Adames in Greener Pastures
It wasn't a surprise when the Tampa Bay Rays booted Willy Adames out of town to make room for Taylor Walls immediately and then Wander Franco later (arriving tomorrow!). Both are superior offensive prospects, and the Rays' bench was already a crowded place with multi-position players anyway. The decision to trade Adames to Milwaukee was probably made a lot easier when Adames was batting under .200 with an OPS of .625 through his first 140 plate appearances, as well.
But whether it is the move to a much friendlier offensive park, not having to worry about an uber-prospect, a secure spot in the lineup, or (most likely) a combination of all three, Adames is thriving in his new environment. His splits between the two teams this year tell the story.
As we approach the time when Adames has equal plate appearances with each squad, it's clear his offensive production in Milwaukee is light years ahead of where it was in Tampa Bay this season.
In fact, if you dig more into the home splits for his time on each team, you will find that Adames' home batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are all at least 50 points higher in Milwaukee's American Family Field than they were at Tropicana Field. This not surprising, of course, when you consider the park factor of each. According to Baseball Savant's three-year averages, American Family Field ranks 13th for offensive production, while Tropicana Field ranks 25th.
Adames has always been considered a solid offensive producer, even in his time as a prospect. In 2018, before his official promotion, Adames was graded as having a 50 power grade and 55 hit grade (out of 80). And his batted-ball profile has improved to the point where he has the 11th-highest hard-hit percentage of all Major Leaguers this year, according to FanGraphs (41.8%). That's better than names like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuna, who you might have heard are pretty good players.
Mostly as a result of the slow start, Adames is rostered in only 18% of Yahoo leagues and should readily be available in most 12-team leagues. As the summer months heat up, Milwaukee's park is just going to continue to be a place for hitters to mash, so it would be wise to invest in Adames now if you are in need of help at the shortstop position.
Adam Wainwright: Aging Asset?
If you peruse the top 25 rotisserie players from the past two weeks in Yahoo leagues, you will see some familiar pitcher names like Jacob deGrom (even with only nine innings), Walker Buehler, Carlos Rodon, and Zack Wheeler.
But comfortably on the list as the 19th-best roto asset over that span sits Adam Wainwright, who has pitched 20 innings with 2 wins, 23 strikeouts, a 2.25 ERA, and a 0.80 WHIP. These three games have come against a variety of offenses: Cleveland (meh), Miami (underrated offense), and Atlanta (elite offense). While these past two weeks have certainly been better than his seasonal numbers (3.74 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 87 innings), he has been absolutely useful all season.
Can we expect this type of sustained excellence from the soon-to-be 40-year-old? Digging into the numbers, there doesn't seem to be anything glaring that one can point to and say, "Oh, that's where the regression is going to come from."
He has a little bit of good fortune in the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) department. He is at .265 this season while the MLB average is at .290, but he has proven he can live at that number in several of his 16 seasons. His 3.74 ERA is backed up by an expected ERA (xERA) of 3.99 and fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 3.76. His home-run-per-fly-ball rate this season (15.6%) is above the league average (13.6%), so it's not as if he has some kind of abnormally low rate there. His ground-ball and fly-ball rates are right in line with his career averages.
This all looks real and is truly just an amazing run of sustained excellence from one of the better pitchers of our generation.
Wainwright has likely fallen in line with the trend of throwing more breaking balls later in his career (and this season in general) so as to save the wear on his arm of going max torque on fastballs. In his prime, Wainwright was throwing his four-seam fastball between 17%-20% and his cutter between 28%-30% of the time. Those numbers are at 11.5% and 23%, respectively, in 2021, and his curveball usage is up to 34.3% (24%-27% in 2012-2017).
According to Baseball Savant, his curveball spin is in the 86th percentile this year, so it has evolved into an "out" pitch for him, as it carries a whiff percentage of 30.4%, by far the highest of all of his pitches.
What it comes down to is this is just the Major League Baseball version of the old man pulling the old man moves on the pick-up basketball court. As Wainwright's fastball velocity has plummeted to the bottom 5% of all pitchers, he is using his bag of tricks with off-speed stuff to fool hitters.
Add Ty France
Ty France (40% rostered in Yahoo leagues) - Coming into 2021, France built up some decent momentum in drafts, eventually climbing into the top 250 players overall. His multi-position eligibility certainly helped, with France able to help at first, second, and third, and the thought was he would be hitting in the middle of the Seattle Mariners' offense every day. Even with a lackluster lineup around him, France certainly could pay off the price tag of the 34th second basemen taken in drafts and would at least be a serviceable corner infielder.
His season got off to a good-not-great start, as he finished April with a .289 average, 3 home runs, 13 RBI, and 18 runs. Then May happened.
During the month of May, France's average dropped a full 40 points, he hit zero home runs, and had seven RBI. Throw in a 10-day IL stint, and many managers who spent a later round pick on the 26-year old bailed ship.
The struggles mostly continued until June 12, when France entered the day batting just .244 and had no homers and one RBI for the month. But in the last two weeks, France has evolved into one of the hottest hitters in baseball, and fantasy managers have been slow to react, which is part of the reason why he can be had in 60% of Yahoo leagues.
Since June 12, France has hit .424 with three home runs, seven RBI, and eight runs. In fact, over his last 100 plate appearances, France is in the top 15 of all big league batters for the greatest increase of expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), per Baseball Savant.
France does still strike out way too much (upper quartile in both strikeout rate and whiff percentage), but his power is starting to materialize just like many pundits thought it would coming into this season. His max exit velocity is 79th percentile among all hitters, and his hard-hit percentage has jumped up to 37.1% after languishing under 30% in 2020. He has also bumped his contact rate and swing percentage in the zone more than five percent than last year, which is likely aiding in the better quality of contact.
France has now settled into spots three or four in the batting order the past couple of weeks, which should also help increase his value with a fantastic table-setter like Mitch Haniger in front of him. If the Mariners can potentially get the version of Jarred Kelenic in the lineup that everyone expected, it will only assist the running-producing capabilities for France. He is a strong add right now for teams looking for corner or middle infielder help.