6 Fantasy Baseball Enigmas for 2016
Baseball is a funny game.
OK, so maybe most of the time it's not so much "ha-ha" funny as it is "weird-funny." Baseball is a hard game in which to maintain consistency, health and good luck all at the same time, every year.
In 2015, just as there are every year, there were a few players who turned in sub-par performances, either due to regression, youth, injury or some combination of those factors. They are players who have shown they can be quality, if not star-caliber, Major League players but, for a variety of reasons, fell flat last season.
So how will they perform this year? Will these enigmas rebound? Or was their prolific production in previous seasons just a tease?
Below are six players who I think are complete mysteries coming into 2015, all of whom you should think long and hard about before drafting in your season-long leagues this season.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Boston Red Sox
Stop me if you've heard this one, but apparently Pablo Sandoval is in the best shape of his life. Red Sox manager John Farrell says the team's third baseman has lost 20 to 25 pounds this offseason, not an insignificant amount considering Kung Fu Panda's listed 255-pound frame.
Last season was a pretty terrible one for the pudgy Panda in Boston, far worse than previous seasons with San Francisco.
At one time in his career, Sandoval was a five-win player for San Francisco, and even in his last two years there, he was still a special player, especially in the postseason. That productivity landed Sandoval a big payday with the Red Sox, but last season, he saw his walk-rate fall to a career low, which affected his on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He was also below average defensively, hence the AL-worst -2.0 fWAR among qualified players.
Boston is hoping Sandoval's weight loss and poor 2015 season will be enough for him to bounce back in 2016 and earn the big free agent contract he received from them one year ago.
Phil Hughes, SP, Minnesota Twins
Last season wasn't a terrible one for Phil Hughes. But after his eye-opening 2014 season, last year's results were not exactly what the Minnesota Twins were hoping for.
After posting a ridiculous 11.6 strikeouts for every walk in 2014, that ratio went way down (5.9), with Hughes' strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) falling from 7.98 (which is closer to his career average) to 5.45. He did maintain his low walk rate, which is very good, but he didn't strike out batters the way he did the season before.
He also allowed a league-worst 29 home runs last season, one in which a back injury limited him to only 155 1/3 innings. He didn't pitch at all in August and only returned in September to pitch in relief. It's easy to think that if Hughes was even close to the pitcher he was in 2014, the Twins would have made the playoffs.
It's more likely than not that it was Hughes' 2014 season that was the aberration. He's always been a homer-prone pitcher, but in that '14 season only gave up 16 bombs. Last season was more the norm.
I'm not optimistic on a return to ace-level status for Hughes in 2016.
Ian Desmond, SS, Free Agent
The struggles of Ian Desmond in 2015 were one of the main reasons the Washington Nationals were such a disappointment. The one-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger Award winner put a lot of pressure on himself in his walk year and had a terrible-for-him season, both at the plate.
Look how good he was in the three seasons before last year. It was a precipitous drop, and it's part of the reason why, as of this writing, Desmond was still looking for work.
However, for fantasy owners and teams considering Desmond, there are some numbers that indicate he'll bounce back in 2016.
In the first half last year, Desmond slashed .211/.255/.334 for an OPS of .589, a wRC+ of 58 and a walk rate of 4.9.
In the second half, Desmond slashed .262/.331/.446 for an OPS of .777, a wRC+ of 113 and a walk rate of 9.6.
Desmond's second half numbers were much closer to his career slash numbers of .264/.312/.424. His walk-rate increased from 4.9% to 9.6% in the second half, and he hit 5 more homers in 63 fewer plate appearances. In fact, that 113 wRC+ in the second half was higher than the wRC+ he posted in all of 2014 and was just a shade lower than the 116 wRC+ he put up in 2013.
Yasiel Puig, RF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Because man, the 2015 season was far below the normal standards for the Dodgers' star.
Now, even in a down year, he was still above a replacement-level player, but a far cry from the four-to-five win player he was his first two years in Los Angeles. Puig was beset by injuries for much of the season, playing in only 79 games last year.
His walk rate and strikeout rate were right about where they were in 2013, but that walk rate was much lower than it was in 2014. And the injuries no doubt affected his effectiveness at the plate.
Last year, 20.7% of all balls hit by Puig were categorized as "softly hit" by Fangraphs, up from 17.4% in 2014 and 12.8% in '13. And his "hard-hit" ball data also went the wrong direction. He hit just 31.3% of balls hard last year, down from 34.6% and 37.5% the two previous years.
And while there will always be talk that Puig is difficult to deal with in the locker room and immaturity issues continue to be mentioned by team officials, it's clear the 25-year-old has the tools to bounce back in a big way for L.A. this season.
Joc Pederson, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
It was a tale of two halves for another Dodgers outfielder, Joc Pederson, who had a red-hot first half that landed him on the All Star team.
The batting average was never high last year, and the slugging percentage dropped like a stone after that All-Star Game. He hit 20 homers in the first half and just six in the second half of the season. His patient approach at the plate allowed him to maintain an excellent walk rate of 15.7% last year, and that never wavered.
But it was that same patient approach that often landed him behind in the count, failing to take advantage of pitches to drive in the second half of the season. He also hit the ball with far less authority in the second half, seeing more breaking balls as pitchers adjusted to him.
This year, it's his turn to adjust back. He's a guy you can probably get later than you normally would in many drafts. Pederson will rebound in 2016.
Jeff Samardzija, SP, San Francisco Giants
So just what the heck happened to Jeff Samardzija last season?
Last year, his strikeout rate took a huge tumble, part of the reason opponents hit a career-worst .269 against him. But was it really a down year or a regression to the mean?
Samardzija's career ERA is 4.09, better than the 4.96 ERA he put up last year. The FIP of 4.23 was also slightly higher than his career mark of 3.84. But it was not egregious.
The most concerning issues were his K-rate and his groundball rate, which was at 39.0% last year, far lower than his 44.5% career mark and the 50.2% he put up in 2014.
Pitching in San Francisco will certainly help Samardzija, who had to deal with Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, a well-known bandbox in baseball. The big key for fantasy owners is whether that K/9 number was just because of a bad year or it will it continue into 2016.