Fantasy Baseball: 3 Things We Learned in Week 3
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 first scoring period of the fantasy baseball season.
Rafael Devers' Slow Start Didn't Last Long
If you looked at Rafael Devers' line before his game on Monday started, you would think nothing is out of step. Through 15 games, he is at 5 home runs, 14 runs batted in, 6 walks, a .538 slugging percentage, and 141 OPS+.
But that masks the fact that through his first six games, Devers was at a .105 average, .105 slugging percentage, a .296 OPS, and no home runs with 1 run batted in.
Fantasy managers were slightly panicking, forgetting that those 25 plate appearances probably represented 4% of his season total. And to say he has turned it around since then would be an understatement.
Devers now ranks top 15 among all Major League hitters in barrels per batted ball, barrels per plate appearance, hard-hit rate, number of hard-hit balls, and average exit velocity. Almost all of his expected batting metrics have jumped into elite territory since his slow start, according to Baseball Savant, meaning he has been simply one of the best hitters over that span to overcome a five-game sample that produced almost nothing.
Unfortunately, there is nothing actionable with Devers, as he is rostered everywhere and the window to buy low is probably shut.
But it still represents a strong case study for fantasy managers that slumps -- even prolonged slumps -- can disappear in an instant, and we still have most of the marathon ahead of us to manage. Anyone who made a rash decision on dropping or trading Devers is kicking themselves a week and a half later.
Will the Real Trevor Rogers Please Stand Up?
For a player who ended baseball draft season as the 113th pitcher taken off the board, fantasy managers probably feel like they have uncovered a hidden treasure after Trevor Rogers' first three starts. But under the hood, Rogers' metrics show an interesting mix of dominance and shakiness that's worth exploring to see if the strong start will continue.
Through three starts, Rogers' fantasy stats look strong at one win, 23 strikeouts in 15 innings, a 2.40 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP. Those numbers are supported by a solid mix of his four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup that has hitters only making contact 63% of the time (fifth-best in MLB).
When hitters do make contact, they tend to have a problem squaring up the ball, as Rogers also ranks 16th in MLB in the new called-plus-swinging-strike percentage (CSW%) at 32.7%. In layman's terms, hitters are getting either a called strike or swinging and missing almost a third of the time against Rogers. Those numbers are outstanding -- better than Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola, and many others.
However, when hitters do make contact, that's when the problems start to creep in. Rogers has allowed 18 hard-hit balls this year (defined as exit velocity of more than 95 miles per hour), leading to a 62.1% hard-hit rate. That is second-worst among all starting pitchers. Not surprisingly, he also has the third-worst exit velocity against him this year (94.6 mph) and the fourth-longest average hit distance against (223 feet).
When you see his exit velocity rankings and hard-hit rate compared to his other metrics, they really stand out (chart courtesy of Baseball Savant).
Rogers can attribute his early success to swing-and-miss stuff that is keeping hitters from making a large amount of contact. But that might be a difficult pace to maintain considering he throws his four-seam fastball 62.6% of the time (sixth-most among starters). That would be one thing if he was Jacob deGrom, who throws his fastball 69% of the time but throws it 99 miles per hour on average. Rogers is only at 95.2 miles per hour, and if hitters start catching up to it, we could see the strikeouts (13.8 K/9) and ERA start going in the other direction.
Add Joey Wendle
Joey Wendle (49% rostered in Yahoo leagues) - There's isn't usually much that's attractive about a 30-year old career utility player, but could this be the season that Wendle is putting it all together? As a post-post-hype player, there wasn't much expected from the Tampa Bay Rays second baseman. On FantasyPros, his final expert consensus ranks before the 2021 season began saw him at 219th among all hitters and 41st among second basemen. It's safe to say he was essentially free on draft day.
That has certainly changed after three weeks as he approaches 50% rostered in fantasy leagues, but the way he is swinging the bat, that needs to be at 100%.
In a three week sample, Wendle is displaying a very interesting and career-defining batted ball profile. His exit velocity this year (91.7 mph) is up more than three miles per hour over his previous three Major League seasons. His expected batting average (xBA), expected slugging percentage (xSLG), and weighted on-base average (wOBA) are all at career highs in the early going this year, and he is spraying the ball to all fields, according to Baseball Savant.
Part of the reason for the early success is he has learned to barrel up the ball more than in season's past. Wendle's barrel rate is 7.7%, more than double any other professional season, and he already has as many barreled balls in three weeks than he did in all of 2019.
There are certainly some chinks in the armor, as well. Wendle's strikeout rate is 21.2% (career 17.9%), and he has not taken a walk so far this year. It seems like he is just falling in line with the Major League trend -- more swings, more power, and more balls in the air (he has a career-high 25.6% fly ball this year).
Clearly, he is not going to maintain a .340 batting average for the season, but if he is sitting out there on your waiver wire (with eligibility at second, shortstop, and third), Wendle looks like he could be a cheap source of power all over your fantasy infield.