Fantasy Baseball Slack and Forth: Bounce-Back Hitters for 2021

Following an abridged 2020 MLB campaign, 2021 might be one of the trickiest fantasy baseball seasons in recent memory. When it comes to player evaluation, how much of 2020 was “real,” and how much should be chalked up to small-sample noise? Under the tough circumstances, should players who struggled last year get a mulligan?

Today, we want to take a look at the last question. Which hitters are coming off poor campaigns but could bounce back in 2021?

To get some different perspectives, I chatted on Slack with my colleagues, Jim Sannes and Austan Kas, to find out which batters they view as bounce-back candidates this season.

Jim Sannes:
I think to me, you look for players who had explainable, correctable dips. Bonus points if it happened in an even smaller sample than the 60-game season. So I'm all in on Kris Bryant, who checks both those boxes.

Bryant is going at pick 120 on average in March NFBC drafts, and that's certainly not a dead zone. But for a guy with his upside, I'm all aboard.

If you make a list of injuries that can drag down performance even after you're "healthy," Bryant had all of them. Wrist, elbow, finger, and oblique all across a shortened season. So the bad advanced numbers on him aren't worrying to me, given how explainable they are.

Austan Kas: I am fully on board with Bryant rebounding in 2021, and I was planning to talk about him, as well. I had a hunch he would be talked about by us today.

I actually expected more chatter about him across the industry and for that to push his ADP higher than it is.

Jim Sannes: Snooze ya lose, bub.

Austan Kas: I'm a parent of two young kids. I don't sleep much.

Jim Sannes: I secretly hope Kenyatta also had a ton of notes prepared on Bryant so that I can just burn this whole puppy down.

Kenyatta Storin: I think after such big expectations early in his career, Bryant has reached “boring” status in fantasy, which is likely keeping his ADP down (in addition to last season).

Jim Sannes: Yeah, the "boring" angle is correct, I think. His ADP was suppressed entering 2019, too, after a rough 2018. But then he went out, slashed .282/.382/.521 and put up respectable numbers across the board.

Austan Kas: I think on most sites he's strictly a third basemen now as opposed to being left-field eligible, too. Does that ding him at all for you guys?

Jim Sannes: Not for me, at least. I view positional versatility as strictly a bump up for someone rather than dinging them for not having it.

Austan Kas: That's fair.

Kenyatta Storin: Most projections give him roughly 25 bombs and an average around .250-.260. And as a career .280 hitter, we can’t rule out a bump in that area.

Austan Kas: And it is his contract year if you want to buy into that narrative.

Jim Sannes: If you take his projections at face value, he's worth his current draft slot. But I think there's room for him to outperform that by a decently wide margin. So sign me up.

Who are you guys trying to buy the dip on?

Austan Kas: Gary Sanchez. Because when you have a chance to back a guy who had a .271 wOBA and struck out in more than one-third of his plate appearances last season, you have to take it.

Kenyatta Storin: lol

Jim Sannes: Austan's out here #grinding spring training tape.

Austan Kas: Yes, he was incredibly awful in 2020, striking out 36.0% of the time on his way to said .271 wOBA. His hard-hit rate and fly-ball rate both dropped from where they were in his 34-tater season in 2019. There really are basically zero positives from his 2020.

Here comes the but -- buuuuuut Sanchez had a .159 BABIP. That would've been the lowest clip among qualifying hitters had he gotten enough plate appearances to qualify. It just can't be that low again. His career BABIP is .256, and Steamer projects him for a .252 BABIP.

When he hit the ball, Sanchez still hit it very hard, ranking in the top four among catchers in average exit velocity and barrels per plate appearance. A 41.3% hard-hit rate and 45.7% fly-ball rate are still pretty solid numbers. He'll be hitting in a loaded New York Yankees lineup, and he's slugged at least 18 jacks in each of the four seasons in which he's gotten 200-plus plate appearances. Steamer has him at 22 homers, a .327 wOBA and 106 combined RBI/runs.

I'm absolutely terrified of the strikeouts, but Sanchez is currently being taken 173rd overall as the 11th catcher, per NFBC ADP. I think the risk is worth the reward, especially for a guy who can be a difference-maker at a position where there are so few of them.

Jim Sannes: Once you get that low in catcher ADP, it's tough to find guys with upside. Outside of Mitch Garver, I don't think anyone down there has Sanchez's ceiling. So I can understand the willingness to take on the risk.

Austan Kas: Yeah, that's basically the gist of it for me. I usually wait at catcher, and it's rare to have someone with his theoretical upside going that late at the position.

Kenyatta Storin: Yeah, I think the one thing you have to keep in mind with drafting Sanchez in standard roto is having a batting average cushion.

Jim Sannes: It also depends a bit on what type of league you're in. If you're in a league with limited moves, it's tougher to stream a replacement if Sanchez struggles again. But if you're in position to bank on upside and take some risk, his appeal goes up.

Austan Kas: I will say I feel better about a Bryant bounce-back than I do one for Sanchez.

Kenyatta Storin: I’m typically someone who waits as long as possible at catcher, so I’m not sure I will end up with him, but I agree that he’s basically coming off the board roughly after all the established hitter-friendly catchers, so I buy taking the plunge.

Austan Kas: Aight, so who is your bounce-back candidate, Kenyatta?

Kenyatta Storin: So, I guess it’s really a twofer because they’re from the same team — and maybe it’s obvious — but Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve look like fine values after underwhelming last year.

Bregman was a borderline first-rounder in 2020 and is now going around pick 50. Altuve is closer to pick 100.

Jim Sannes: You're going to have to sell me on Altuve.

Austan Kas: I'm in the same boat as Jim -- fine with Bregman, not so much Altuve.

Kenyatta Storin: No question, Altuve had a crummy regular season, but he went off in the postseason (.375/.500/.729) with five homers -- the same number of dingers he had in the regular season. Normally, playoff numbers wouldn’t matter much in a standard year, but when we’re talking 192 at-bats in the regular season and 48 in the playoffs, it shows what silly sample sizes we’re looking at. If you put his numbers together, he hit .250 with 10 homers over 240 at-bats -- nothing amazing, but not awful, either.

Jim Sannes: I think the question with Altuve is whether you see him regaining either power or steals. The batting average should be there. But if he's not going to get back to providing either pop or speed, it's hard for me to envision his having a ceiling.

Austan Kas: He was awesome in the playoffs. I think my concern is the lack of steals as I fear he's done running.

Kenyatta Storin: I think that’s a fair question, particularly with the “deadened” ball. Projections are quite favorable for him in both power and speed, though, and I think if nothing else, he should hit for a high average, which is generally underrated.

Jim Sannes: Probably a philosophical thing, then. I just haaaaate drafting guys whose best asset is batting average if they're not going to stand out elsewhere.

Which is probably why I lose batting average every year, but...

Kenyatta Storin: Yeah, I think it’s, again, more a roster construction thing.

But when he’s like the 10th-12th second baseman off the board, I don’t think you need him to recapture all his past glory.

Jim Sannes: The Bregman one requires no convincing for me. His batted-ball numbers took a dip last year, but it was also just 180 plate appearances. As long as his hamstring injury this spring doesn't drag out much longer, I'm fully okay taking him at the discount.

Austan Kas: Steamer has Bregman hitting 31 homers and walking more than he strikes out. He's good.

Kenyatta Storin: Yeah, I worry about his upside a smidge even at his current ADP if we’re being honest — probably not stealing anymore and his Statcast power metrics have never been amazing. But he’s such a good overall hitter that you just expect him to bounce back (career 145 wRC+).

Austan Kas: The home park helps him quite a bit in left, too.

Jim Sannes: I think this exercise does show how many guys are easy sells as far as being bounce-backs. We were good on the guys listed for the most part, but I think we also could have brought up Matt Chapman, Yoan Moncada, and a bunch of others in the same discussion.

Kenyatta Storin: Yeah, Chapman is going around the same area as Bryant — I’ll take Chapman there all day.

Austan Kas: There won't be much negativity about Chapman around these parts. Mostly because I think Jim would stop talking to me.

I wanted to touch on Kyle Schwarber as another guy who I think can bounce back.

While Schwarber hasn't taken off like we thought he might a few years back, he still pumped out 30, 26 and 38 dingers in his three campaigns prior to 2020. He's always going to strike out a bunch and won't hit lefties, but he walks a good amount (13.0% career walk rate).

Maybe the Washington Nationals can unlock something we haven't yet seen from Schwarber, but even if they can't, Steamer projects him for 31 home runs and 151 combined runs/RBI. I'll take that from a player going 192nd overall (OF51).

Jim Sannes: Just wish we had known at the time that there would be no DH in the NL so that Schwarbomb could have signed in the AL, instead.

Austan Kas: Yeah, for sure. I was really pulling for the universal DH, because I enjoy fun.

Kenyatta Storin: Yup, Schwarber looks like a good bet for 30 dingers (as always), which you’ll gladly take at that ADP.

Austan Kas: Yes, please.