Fantasy Baseball: 8 Bold Predictions for 2020
The calendar has flipped over to the new year, and that means it's time to start our fantasy baseball prep for the upcoming season.
The good thing is that we have many tools at our disposal -- including tools like National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) draft data, which can provide some insight on how early drafters are viewing players for 2020. Even if you aren't playing in these leagues, it's great to have this data at your disposal.
Sometimes, that means players are overvalued. Other times, it means that there's some bargains. And on occasion, it just makes you think.
Here are eight bold predictions I am confident in for the 2020 baseball season.
Walker Buehler Wins the 2020 NL Cy Young Award.
If you remember my Bold Predictions for the 2019 season, you may recall that I touted Trevor Bauer as the real deal in 2019.
Boy was that wrong.
Bauer struggled with all kinds of issues, but most notably, the home run ball killed him in 2019. He allowed 1.44 home runs per nine (HR/9) innings pitched, and while he still whiffed 253 batters, he also posted a 4.48 ERA. His season may be most notably defined for this temper tantrum:
But that's in the past, and we are focused on the future. Walker Buehler is currently the fourth starting pitcher off the board with an average pick of 17.23 or a mid-second rounder in 12-team formats. So, predicting him as the NL Cy Young winner really isn't that bold.
What's interesting, though, is how good Buehler was in 2019 from May onward. April was admittedly rough, but he had virtually no equal for the rest of the season: 24 starts, 153 innings pitched (6.4 IP per start), 2.88 ERA, 31.0% strikeout rate, and a 4.5% walk rate. Wowza. Keep in mind those gaudy numbers include a Coors Field start where Buehler was blasted for seven earned over 5 2/3 innings pitched -- he was that saucy.
Buehler may get a little bit less love than his counterparts because he technically doesn't have a "Money Pitch" -- the phrase coined and made popular by our pals over at Pitcher List. If you're unfamiliar with the term, it's a pitch that gets an O-Swing and Zone % of greater than 40% (swings out of the zone and pitches in the zone), and a Swinging-Strike Rate greater than 15%. Buehler's cutter, slider, and curveball are all just barely missing out on inclusion here, but they are all filthy offerings, highlighted by a slider with a silly 18.2% Swinging Strike Rate last year.
If you're planning on drafting Buehler, be ready to pay up for him as he looks geared to make the next step.
Pete Alonso Isn't a Top-50 Player in 2020.
I think the term "sophomore slump" is stupid. Yes, I understand why people use it, but no, I don't subscribe to a theory that just because it's their second year, they forgot what to do.
But there are some major red flags that give me pause about Pete Alonso. However, let's start with all the good things about Alonso because there are many. He led baseball with 53 home runs last season, and he hits the ball really hard (42.3% hard-hit rate), with an excellent barrel rate (15.8%), and his 10.4% walk rate led to a solid 103 runs scored. Check out this bomb Alonso hit to break the rookie home run record:
Unfortunately, there's some downside risk. He whiffed 26.4% of the time, and as my colleague Randy Haines mentioned, he hits a ton of infield pop flies, putting him in some not so outstanding company:
Three qualified hitters in 2019 had a K rate 26% or higher and a pop up rate 13% or higher:
Not saying Alonso is in the skill range of these two, but at pick 31 the potential BA downside has me all the way out
— Randy Haines (@randyhaines22) January 22, 2020
That gives me some pause -- and if he weren't going in the middle of the third round in drafts, it could be a bit more palatable. However, that's some serious draft day equity you need to use to own a guy like Alonso. Given that he does not run a lick, with the batting average risk that's there, there's some serious downside present we can't ignore.
Jose Ramirez Returns First-Round Value in 2020.
On average, Jose Ramirez was the fourth draft pick in fantasy baseball in 2019. And if you owned him like I did, you were likely pulling out your hair as he posted a .218 batting average over the first three months of the year (340 plate appearances) with only five home runs, a .112 isolated power (ISO), and 35.7% hard-hit rate. Literally, his steals were the only thing keeping him from getting cut.
Then, the dude went bananas.
Hopefully, you kept the faith, because Ramirez went OFF in the back half of the year, hitting 19 home runs while swiping 12 bags to close down the season. Oh, and did you know that Ramirez missed a month of the season with a hand injury, then smacked three homers in the final series of the year?
Whatever ailed him early did not bother him late -- he posted a 47.8% hard-hit rate and 1.078 OPS in his final 202 plate appearances, returning him among the game's elite assets. But Ramirez is still going largely unnoticed -- per NFBC draft data, he is only going at pick 18.52.
With a lack of speed overall in baseball today -- only six players topped 30 stolen bases last season --, Ramirez looks like a draft-day steal.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is Not a Top-25 Player.
Ok, you can call me a boomer for hating on the young kids, but I am struggling with this Fernando Tatis Jr. draft cost of 17.59, or one pick ahead of the aforementioned Jose Ramirez.
Look, the guy is a boss. In his rookie season, in a park that limits runs and home runs, the precocious youngster slammed 22 home runs with 16 steals in only 372 plate appearances. He also logged a .317 batting average (only 19 qualified hitters topped .300), and despite his compressed season, he was T-20th in steals.
But that back injury has me worried -- all signs point to Tatis making a full recovery, but it is certainly worth monitoring. There are also some batted-ball profile warts -- he whiffs a ton with a 29.6% strikeout rate -- and a .410 BABIP likely points to some serious batting average regression. Keep in mind that a high BABIP isn't really in his minor league profile -- he did post a .370 mark in Triple-A in 2018 but was more often in the .340 range at other stops.
His 30.9% fly-ball rate was a bit peculiar as well -- combining all of those factors together, he could be a major bust.
Matt Olson Leads the Majors in Home Runs.
When you take a peek back at the 2019 season and the home run leaders, a guy like Matt Olson doesn't necessarily stick out, per se. His 36 home runs, while great, don't jump off the page, even though the dude hits some massive taters like this one off of stud reliever Josh Hader:
But that's where looking at counting stats can be tricky. Olson injured his hand in the opening series in Japan and missed some serious time to kick off the season. His 36 home runs came in only 547 plate appearances.
Everything about Olson's profile was extremely elite -- his 9.3% walk rate showed an adept batted ball profile, and his 50.3% hard-hit rate and 44.6% fly-ball rate portend for some monster outcomes.
At worst, Olson may just be an elite fantasy baseball player in 2019 -- he will sit smack in the middle of the lineup behind Marcus Semien, Ramon Laureano, and Matt Chapman, so runs batted in opportunities will likely be plentiful. Don't miss out on this slugging first baseman, who is only going sixth at his position in drafts today.
Chris Sale is Not a Top-20 Starting Pitcher.
This likely could be devastating to my fantasy teams this year, but it's really hard for me to get behind being Chris Sale this year, especially at his current draft cost.
Sale is currently being drafted as an anchor to your fantasy staffs -- at pick 37.72, he's SP11 on draft boards, and there is currently a noticeable drop from him to SP12 (Luis Castillo, ADP 47.49).
Here's why I can't get behind Sale -- it was reported that he was cleared prior to Christmas to begin a throwing program by Dr. James Andrews, and he hasn't exactly been the bastion of healthy lately. He has not topped 160 innings in either of the last two seasons -- and while the whiff rate is outstanding with a 14.2% swinging-strike rate and 34.6% overall strikeout rate, his hard-hit rate soared to a career-worst mark of 36.0%, eight points above his career average.
When you are looking to start your staff, just know that Sale carries some serious risk.
Jose Abreu Leads the League in RBIs.
Is there anyone more under-appreciated than Jose Abreu?
News flash: Abreu drove in the second-most runs in all of baseball last season (123), yet the under-appreciated first baseman is going ninth off the board at pick 77.94.
Let's even take last season out of the question -- outside of an anomaly in 2018, when he drove in only 78 runs, would you have guessed that in six major league seasons, Abreu has topped 100 runs batted every year. Twenty-five home runs and 100 runs batted in are basically a guarantee with this guy.
While he doesn't run much, his hard-hit rate (48.2%), 92.1 miles-per-hour exit velocity, and 12.1% barrel rate all rank among the league's elite. The dude can flat out rake.
And that lineup? It's definitely juicy. Teammates Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson are the table setters that enjoyed breakout seasons in 2019, and he will be flanked by Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion, newly signed free agents who combined for 61 home runs last year. Not bad when you consider that Guaranteed Rate Field ranked fifth in home run factor last year, per ESPN.
Invest in the Chicago White Sox first baseman with extreme confidence.
Chris Paddack is Not a Top-30 Starting Pitcher.
Look, if this were a popularity contest, there's a ton of reasons to absolutely love Chris Paddack.
The dude has swag, he throws some major heat, and he enjoyed a banner rookie season. Spanning 140 2/3 innings pitched, he rocked a delicious 3.33 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. He had a 5.5% walk rate last year, which is actually above most of his minor league stops.
But there's reasons why I can't buy him at pick 53.27 or SP16. Over his 26 turns with the ball, he averaged only 5.4 innings per start. And his track record is a bit scary -- in 2015, he threw 45 1/3 innings, followed by only 42 1/3 innings in 2016.
His strikeout rate, while strong, isn't anything absurd at 26.9%. Had he pitched enough innings to qualify, this would rank him only T-19th (Aaron Nola).
When you are investing this high, you need a 200-inning anchor, and it's likely that Paddack throws 150 innings or less, given the track record. It's a prediction I'd love to be wrong on, but there's many other pitchers costing something similar on draft day (think Clayton Kershaw, Charlie Morton, and Yu Darvish) that seem like better bets.