Fantasy Baseball: 3 Things We Learned in Week 18
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 18th scoring period of the fantasy baseball season.
Jorge Soler's New Power Park
The season-long numbers for Jorge Soler look quite underwhelming. His .200 average, 13 home runs, and 38 RBI in 2021 are a far cry from his breakout 2019 campaign with a .265/.354/.569 slash line with 48 homers and 117 RBI. But those numbers were always misleading for someone who played half of their games in the cavern that is Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. Now traded to an Atlanta Braves team with their eyes on the postseason and a spot in the upper half of the lineup solidified, this is clearly Soler's next best shot to reach the power potential that has teased fantasy managers for years.
Soler's raw power has never been in question since the moment he debuted in 2015 at the age of 23. But the upper limit of his power has been stifled by playing in Kansas City since 2017, something that a move to Atlanta's Truist Park should help. Over the past three years, Truist Park has been the 13th-best park of right-handed home runs, according to Baseball Savant. In that same timeframe, Kauffman Stadium's park factor to right-handers is dead last at 74 (or 26% below league average). Soler has one of the most elite power profiles in the majors, so he must be salivating at the thought of taking his talents down to Atlanta to hit.
Finally recovered from some of the nagging injuries that plagued him early in the season, Soler was already picking up the offensive pace even before his trade. In the past 15 days, he is the fifth-best hitter in standard rotisserie leagues with a .324 average, 10 runs, 6 home runs, and 8 RBI. In addition to his massive power, part of the reason for Soler's maturity at the plate is his newfound approach to all fields. Look at the spray chart comparison from Soler as a young 24-year old in 2016 to his spray chart this year at age 29, according to Baseball Savant.
This is much more of an all-fields approach which coincides with his 2021 contact rate, which at 71% is the highest of his career. Similarly, his first-pitch strike percentage is the lowest of his career at 55.7%, so Soler is showing a more balanced, patient approach this season that is allowing his true offensive talents to be on full display. Soler only seems to be 53% rostered in Yahoo leagues as play begins on Monday, so it is worth checking your league's waiver wire if you are in need of some serious outfield pop for the stretch run.
Despite only one win in his last three turns through the rotation, just a small handful of starting pitchers have been more valuable in rotisseries formats than Frankie Montas over the last 15 days. In that time, he has piled up 20 strikeouts, a 2.08 ERA, and a 0.85 WHIP across 20 innings. In his last four starts, he has 37 strikeouts and has the second-highest strikeouts per nine innings among all starters (12.97) over the last 30 days. Is Montas finally reaching the potential so many knew he had when he first made it to Oakland back in 2017? It seems as though Montas has made a few significant changes that are driving this recent surge.
What Montas is doing effectively in 2021 is mixing his pitches much more than in season's past. As you can see from the graph above, his fastball, split-finger, sinker, and slider all sit within about a usage rate of 20%-35%. In previous seasons, he relied much more exclusively on the slider and sinker. The results have been positive this season, as he is inducing less contact in the zone, causing more swings outside the zone, and racking up a career-high first-pitch strike percentage, according to Fangraphs.
Montas is almost universally rostered this season (84% of Yahoo leagues), but his recent surge and his age (28 this year) make him a valuable keeper league and dynasty format asset for years to come. Most projection systems peg him for an ERA under 4.00 and a strikeout rate of almost 10 K/9 the rest of the season. If you were lucky enough to grab Montas in the middle rounds of your draft this season, just sit back and let the profit roll in.
Add Rafael Ortega
Rafael Ortega (9% rostered in Yahoo leagues) - After the dust settled on the Chicago Cubs' fire sale, the remaining pieces will be asked to play out the season as ownership looks to retool and rebuild towards a better (and probably younger) future team. One of the most intriguing pieces left on the roster is Rafael Ortega, a 30-year old journeyman outfielder who has been scorching the ball in the second half this year, and now has an opportunity to play every day in the top half of the Cubs lineup.
Over the last 14 days, Ortega has been the second-best rotisserie asset among all hitters. If that's not enough, he has been the fourth-best the past 30 days. Over the last month, he has hit .417 with 11 runs, 4 home runs, 11 RBI, and 2 steals. This incredible hot streak, however, should be taken with an exceptionally large grain of salt. He has never come close to these contact and power numbers in his previous three major league seasons. For his career, he carries a .262 expected batting average and a .355 expected slugging percentage. In 2021, those numbers are .304 and .461. His four steals this season look appealing, but he has also been caught stealing five times and has a sprint speed score that's just in the 64th percentile.
But his plate discipline seems to be vastly improved this year, which is where we can point to if we are looking for signs that the strong production will continue. Ortega's chase rate in 2021 (26.9%) is below his career average (29.2%). His contact rate in the zone (85.3%) is also below his career average (87.5%), suggesting there might be some slight room for improvement. Ortega is swinging at fewer first pitches this year (20.3%) than his career rate (23.1%). All of these contribute to an expected weighted on-base average of .354 and an elite HardHit% of 44.7%. Being more selective and more patient is certainly paying off for the well-traveled outfielder.
Ortega has hit leadoff in each of the last six games for the Cubs, even before the trade deadline. That signals to me that they are willing to give him the longest leash possible which will lead to a plethora of plate appearances and fantasy opportunities in the weeks to come.