Fantasy Baseball: 3 Things We Learned in Week 17

Teoscar Hernandez has been overshadowed by some of his superstar teammates, but he's having quite the productive season himself. Which other players should we take note of in season-long fantasy leagues?

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 17th scoring period of the fantasy baseball season.

Teoscar Hernandez: Underrated Star

Lost in the shuffle of the absolutely dominant seasons of teammates Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Marcus Semien, along with the free agent splash of George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez has proven to be an invaluable part of the Toronto Blue Jays' offense, providing a steady bat in the top half of the order as an elite source of five-category production.

Over the past two weeks, Hernandez has been the 11th-best hitter in traditional rotisserie formats with a .296 average, four home runs, eight runs, nine RBI, and a steal. On the season, the Toronto outfielder is at .297 with 15 home runs, 57 RBI, and 7 steals, good for the 15th-best outfield line in rotisserie formats.

What skills have allowed Hernandez to have better fantasy seasons than Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, and Joey Gallo? Let's dig in and find out.

Certainly attendance has been part of the grade. Despite missing three weeks early in the season with injury, Hernandez ranks in the top-25 outfielders in plate appearances, and that matters when you have on-base machines like Semien, Guerrero, and Bichette in front of you. So while many of his counting stats owe credit to his teammates, it's likely been his aggressiveness against opposing pitchers that has allowed him to do the most damage.

Hernandez ranks seventh among all outfielders in swing percentage (52.7%) in 2021. That can be a good or bad thing depending on the hitter. But Hernandez is clearly up there to hit, and more often than not he has been successful when he attacks the first pitch.

Here are his first-pitch splits from Baseball Reference.

Swung at 1st Pitch13142922532.333.359.595.954
Took 1st Pitch192476371748.270.333.431.764

His aggressiveness has served him well particularly because he has been granted so many opportunities with men on base.

While Hernandez has 175 plate appearances with no men on base in front of him, he has an astounding 148 trips to the plate with men on already. In those plate appearances, he is slashing .356/.405/.593 compared to .248/.291/.424 with no one on. The question then becomes can Hernandez keep up the torrid pace for the balance of the season?

With the reshuffling of the Blue Jays batting order recently, Hernandez is hitting fifth with the other four superstars hitting directly in front of him. That should allow him plenty of opportunities to see pitches in the zone and drive in runners while Toronto fights for a playoff berth. Invest with confidence if there is a manager in your league willing to part with him.

Patrick Sandoval's Path to Change

It was a tale of two outcomes in the last couple of starts for Patrick Sandoval.

On July 18th, Sandoval gave up six runs (four earned) in a bad loss to the Seattle Mariners. But on July 24th, he was one out away from a no-hitter and struck out a career-high 13 batters in a 2-1 win over the Minnesota Twins.

The July 18th start notwithstanding, Sandoval is in the midst of a breakout year in 2021. After two consecutive seasons with an ERA over 5.00 to start his career, Sandoval now has a 3.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and more than a strikeout per inning. What's different this year than the last two?

The change has been due to his change-up.

Among all pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched, FanGraphs ranks Sandoval's change-up as the best in the Majors. It's graded better than Zack Greinke, Julio Urias, John Means, and other change-up artists. The Los Angeles Angels' pitching coaches clearly saw something in this pitch, so they have coaxed Sandoval to use the pitch more than ever.

Season Fastball% Sinker% Change Up% Slider% Curve Ball%
2019 46.50% 30.80% 9.20% 13.40%
2020 44.60% 23.10% 25.30% 7.00%
2021 25.60% 15.50% 31.10% 17.30% 10.50%

You can see that this season, Sandoval has cut almost 20 percentage points off of his fastball usage. FanGraphs ranks that pitch 97th among all pitchers, so it's no surprise that Sandoval is shelving it as much as possible.

His change-up usage, however, has jumped from 23% in 2020 to 31% in 2021 and has become his primary pitch. He is also still utilizing his slider a healthy amount, which FanGraphs ranks as the 14th-best in baseball.

Here we see Sandoval's pitch log from the near no-hitter on Saturday, courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Of his 108 pitches, 63 of them (58%) were the change-up or slider, and less than 20% were fastballs. If this is the pitch mix we see from Sandoval going forward, he is going to be a strong buy for the rest of the fantasy season.

Presently, he is only 32% rostered in Yahoo leagues, so check your waiver wire if you need starting pitching help down the stretch.

Add Daulton Varsho

Daulton Varsho (27% rostered in Yahoo leagues) - If you play in Yahoo fantasy baseball leagues, you know the cheat code that is Isiah Kiner-Falefa. He is catcher eligible this season even though he hasn't played an inning there this year and hasn't since the 2019 season. It's about time to add Daulton Varsho to that cheat code list considering his eligibility and his new role in the Arizona Diamondbacks offense.

Varsho, unlike Kiner-Falefa, has played 20-plus games at catcher in 2021, but on the days he does not catch, you will likely find him in the outfield, where he has 17 games split between center and right field. This everyday role -- Varsho didn't join the big club until May 1 and had another four-week stretch in the minors -- immediately propels him to one of the more intriguing catcher pickups in fantasy leagues. Add in the fact that he has a stellar power/speed profile, and Varsho becomes a must-add.

Since the All-Star break, Varsho is slashing a cool .400/.500/.840 with three home runs, eight RBI, and two steals. One of the reasons Kiner-Falefa (15 steals) is such a cheat code for fantasy is we rarely get steals from our catcher slot, so another 4-6 steals from Varsho in 2021 is like finding gold on the waiver wire at this point of the season.

Since he debuted last season, Varsho has increased his hard-hit rate from 38% to 42%, increased his barrel rate from 4.4% to 7.9%, increased his walk rate from 10.4% to 13.2%, and decreased his strikeout rate from 28.7% to 24.0%. That's the kind of evolution you want to see from a 25-year-old who is getting his first real shot at an everyday role. With his team surely taking note, Varsho was slotted into the leadoff spot on Sunday for the first time this season. If that spot sticks, the sky's the limit for the young prospect.

His overall seasonal numbers may not look great at this point, but armed with the knowledge of his improved plate discipline and a potential new spot in the batting order, this is likely a player where you can be out in front of your league mates.

Run, don't walk, to your waiver wire if you need help at the catcher spot.