Fantasy Baseball: 3 Things We Learned in Week 2
Welcome back to the 3 Things We Learned Series for the 2022 MLB season! This weekly piece will look at the trends, patterns, and interesting statistical touchpoints of the MLB season in order to help you make actionable fantasy decisions.
Baseball fans love their stats. We devour them, dissect them, and build our fantasy rosters around them. Each week of the 2022 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 second scoring period of the 2022 MLB fantasy baseball season.
Andrew Heaney Sweeping Up His Opponents
Andrew Heaney is one of many players often lumped into the "tons of potential, never put it all together" group based on his ability to strike guys out but also his propensity to give up home runs and hard contact.
His best season as a starter came in 18 starts in 2015 -- when he posted a 3.49 ERA over 18 starts. That year, he also gave us numbers like 0.77 HR/9 and 2.38 BB/9; all easily career-best marks. Since then it has been a roller coaster of ERAs between 4.15 and 7.00, HR/9s between 1.22 and 4.98, and BB/9s that have gotten as high as 3.74.
So what are we to make of Heaney's first two starts of 2022 as he has an immaculate 0.00 ERA, 13.94 K/9, and walked three batters?
Some are looking at the performances and think it is an Admiral Akbar-type trap. Others point to the fact that Heaney is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that has helped him unleash his new "sweeper" pitch that has been devastating to opponents thus far.
Thus far Heaney has allowed two hits (both doubles) off the pitch, struck out 10 and walked none. You can play around on the leaderboard with movement data, outcomes, and averages (.100 BAA, .200 SLG against), etc. pic.twitter.com/dQtfBilpC1
— craig online. (@cdgoldstein) April 18, 2022
As pointed out by Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, Heaney is allowing only a .100 batting average and a .200 slugging percentage against that new pitch. What makes it even more interesting is Baseball Savant, which calls the pitch a slider, shows that he is throwing the pitch exactly as much as he is throwing his fastball. His former changeup has all but disappeared, and he has yet to throw a curveball, a pitch he threw more than 20% of the time the past three seasons.
Is this new pitch really that impressive and unhittable? Among sweepers, Heaney has the 17th-highest velocity, but it is 10th in inducing swings and misses and 7th in overall swing rate.
Through two starts, it's clear that scouting reports aren't caught up with what he can throw, so hitters have been caught off guard. After the first few starts, the primary question is -- can the pitch continue to evolve and remain unhittable, or will batters adjust and force Heaney to shift again?
Clearly, Heaney's numbers won't remain Bob Gibson-esque all season, but just how quickly batters can adapt may go a long way to determining if Heaney should be a mainstay on our rosters.
Presently, he is 48% rostered in Yahoo leagues, so it's worth taking a speculative look to see if he is available. He's certainly worthy of a roster spot right now.
Tyler Naquin Is Playing Every Day
It was right about this time one year ago that Tyler Naquin became a name well-known to the fantasy baseball community. On April 18, 2021, after the Cincinnati Reds' first 12 games, Naquin led the world with six home runs and 15 RBI. That led to a Ruthian .714 slugging percentage and a 1.069 OPS. Naquin became one of the most added players around in hopes that this late-20s power surge was for real.
He would, of course, regress significantly and finished the year with 19 home runs and 70 RBI. That power output and his ability to mash right-handed pitching earned him a spot in the lineup many days, however, and also earned him a one-year, $4 million arbitration deal.
But last season, Naquin mostly played against only right-handers. As a left-handed bat, he was often benched on days when the Reds faced a southpaw. In fact, in 384 plate appearances against righties last year, Naquin slashed .283/.339/.514, but he was only at .197/.300/.262 in 70 plate appearances against lefties.
After Naquin sat the first day of the season in favor of Aristides Aquino when the Reds faced lefty Max Fried, it seemed like it was just the same old story all over again. But due to a combination of factors, Naquin has started every game since Opening Day and now carries a tidy .276 average with a homer, a steal, four runs, and four RBI in just nine games.
Through 29 plate appearances, Naquin has 15 of them against left-handers and is slashing .200/.200/.467. Nothing special at first glance, but his one home run and a double was off a lefty, which is a great sign. The Reds are playing him every day because, why not? The firesale has begun and will likely continue if they can find suitors for Luis Castillo and Mike Moustakas at the trade deadline. The only thing that would seemingly hurt Naquin's value would be him being dealt to a contender that wants to use him in a platoon.
With Nick Senzel now on the IL and Aquino performing terribly at the plate, Naquin's time is now.
The real first test for 2022 comes this week when Naquin faces three left-handers in the next six games. Do the Reds keep him in the lineup, batting second as he has for nine games? Can he hold his own in those lefty-lefty matchups? Naquin is a must-start now against righties, but he might be evolving into a start-him-every-day player.
Naquin is 11% rostered in Yahoo leagues, so if you need a Util or OF4/5, Naquin could be a power savior for you this year.
Add: Cristian Javier
Cristian Javier (38% rostered in Yahoo leagues) - I'm not exactly sure what more the Houston Astros need to see to make the switch from Jake Odorizzi to Cristian Javier in their starting rotation, but it appears it is past time to make the move. Perhaps they are waiting for Javier to be slightly more stretched out, or perhaps they prefer his dominance in the middle innings of close games. But at some point, Javier is going to force their hand.
Through his first two starts, Odorizzi owns a 6.48 ERA with identical 3.24 K/9 and BB/9. That's about as bad of a K/9 number as you are ever going to see, and the lack of swing-and-miss stuff is glaring. Plus, Odorizzi has not allowed a home run in spite of the bloated ERA. That also will change soon considering he gives up a 45% fly-ball rate for his career.
Javier, on the other hand, has been simply masterful. In his five innings of work this year, he has eight strikeouts and has not allowed a run. The BABIP of .286 is right in line with MLB norms, so it's not as if he is getting supremely lucky, either. He is also, of course, no stranger to starting games. When called upon last year, Javier started nine games and gave the team a 3.14 ERA with 10.73 K/9.
Among relievers who have thrown at least 25 four-seam fastballs, Javier's ranks fourth with a 47.4% swinging-strike rate. And while he gives up a lot of fly-balls, his career HR/FB rate is around just 14%. This is a guy who knows how to get batters to swing and miss and can keep the ball in the ballpark.
Assuming a spot opens up for him in the rotation in the near future, Javier could be a league-winner in the second half of the season.