Are 2021’s Busts This Season’s Rebounds?

Yesterday, I discussed six 2021 fantasy breakouts and concluded with a verdict as to whether I believed each was for real or would be a 2022 bust. Today, let’s discuss the 2021 busts. Will they rebound or continue down the path of bustiness?

A reminder of the rules:

I excluded pitchers from this analysis, since we could more easily discern between those who were the victims of poor fortune (Aaron Nola, Yu Darvish) and those whose skills declined, supporting the busting (Kyle Hendricks). I also excluded hitters who recorded significantly fewer plate appearances in 2021 versus 2020, as the decline in dollar value was due to a drop in playing time rather than skills. Last, in order to avoid overly punishing a hitter for being awful, as opposed to simply bad, I changed any hitter’s end of season (EOS) $$ value to $0 if it was negative.

For this exercise, I’m defining a 2022 REBOUND as a hitter I expect to earn within $7 of his 2020 EOS dollar value. So that means if a hitter earned $30 in 2020 and then $5 in 2021, he would be labeled a REBOUND if I projected him to earn at least $23 in 2022. If I think the player is likely to fall short of that earnings minimum, I’ll deem him STILL A BUST. As a reminder, I am completely ignoring ADP and any average auction values available, as those are very league dependent.

There are a whole lot more 2021 busts than this, of course, but we’re going to discuss five of the biggest.

2021 Busts
Name 2020 EOS $$* 2021 EOS $$* Diff Within $7 of 2021
Mookie Betts $37.40 $12.32 -$25.07 $30.40
Michael Conforto $22.33 $0.00 -$22.33 $15.33
DJ LeMahieu $24.38 $3.53 -$20.85 $17.38
Jose Abreu $38.07 $17.50 -$20.57 $31.07
Wil Myers $23.98 $3.49 -$20.49 $16.98
*Using the FanGraphs auction calculator with default settings

Mookie Betts

With his blend of power and speed, Betts has cemented himself as a consistent top five pick. While he was still a solid contributor in 2021, his HR/FB rate fell dramatically from 2020, his strikeout rate increased to a career worst, and he stole the fewest bases of his career over a full season. He did miss time to injury which resulted in 114 fewer plate appearances if you prorate his PA to a 162 game season. Obviously, that increased his dollar value loss compared to 2020, but he still would have been a bust given his full season pace.

The first thing worth noting is that Betts’ 19% HR/FB in 2020 looks like a fluke, as his xHR/FB rate was only 15.3%. That’s what happens over small sample sizes. So the decline in 2021 shouldn’t have been as dramatic as it was, but it looks more so because there wasn’t enough time for his HR/FB rate to regress in 2020. I think the biggest determinant on whether he rebounds or not is his steals. While his attempt rate was actually slightly higher than in 2019, it was just over half of his 2020 rate and significantly lower than his 2017 and 2019 rates as well.

Given the injuries, I am projecting better performances on both the home runs and stolen base side. However, it’s going to be mighty difficult to replicate what he did in 2020 and that full season pace he was on. The good news is he doesn’t actually need to. Even falling short, he should be a major contributor in all five categories that even declines versus 2020 should still allow him to reach that $30 level. The insane Dodgers lineup should ensure an elite runs scored total, while his RBI total will be boosted by the NL DH, more so than most other hitters given his spot in the lineup (leadoff) and quality of the lineup.

Verdict: REBOUND

Michael Conforto

Yeah, I said I wouldn’t include hitters who recorded significantly fewer plate appearances in 2021 versus 2020 and that’s still true. I had to pick a cutoff and Conforto’s down season wasn’t entirely due to the dip in PAs. Both his HR/FB rate and BABIP fell to their lowest marks since 2016, though those declines were offset somewhat by his best strikeout rate since his 2015 debut.

The good news here is that Conforto underperformed his xHR/FB rate by the largest margin of his career. So merely based on better luck, he should see improved results. He also underperformed his xBABIP by the largest degree and has not been a consistent underperformer. So that’s two declines he suffered that looked like mostly poor fortune. That’s what we are looking for in a rebound candidate.

The challenge here, of course, is that Conforto is one of the few remaining impact free agents. Since he still doesn’t have a home, it’s difficult to predict his rebound chances. However, in 2020, he posted an absurd .412 BABIP, driving up his batting average to .322. That was the first time his average finished above .279! Obviously, that’s not going to happen again and it was the only time he showed any sort of above average BABIP skills. Even if his HR/FB rate mostly rebounds, he’s likely going to be a negative in batting average, or neutral at best. And with his significant lefty/righty pitcher splits, it’s conceivable he ends up in a platoon with his new team. Too much needs to go right here to expect him to meet the minimum rebound requirements.

Verdict: STILL A BUST

DJ LeMahieu

My gosh, from ideal product of Yankee Stadium for two seasons to reverting right back to his pre-Yankee stadium form, what happened to LeMahieu?! He hit the same number of homers last year in 597 at-bats as he did in 195 at-bats in 2020! While Yankee Stadium is still above average for right-handed homers, it’s a top five park for left-handed homers. DJ LeMahieu is right-handed, but is the ideal right-handed bat to take advantage of the park’s dimensions because of how often he goes the opposite way with his flies. In 2019, his xHR/FB rate actually supported his HR/FB rate spike, and my equation actually ignores home park. However, in 2020 when he took his HR/FB rate to even higher heights, he was one of the largest outperformers I have ever seen, as his barrel rate plummeted.

Last year, his xHR/FB rate hit its lowest mark since 2015, even as his barrel rate rebounded somewhat. If you check out his Expected Home Runs by Park on Statcast, you’ll see that Yankee Stadium is easily the highest every year, but the table above that shows that his overall xHR has consistently been lower than his actual. It just goes to show how perfect his swing is for the park.

He’s a real toughie to project given that he clearly doesn’t own above average power, but had used his home park exceptionally well. He did so less well in 2021, as his home HR/FB was barely higher than his away mark at just 7.9%. Will that surge back up in 2022? I really don’t know.

What I do know is that the odds of him posting another .370 BABIP, career low strikeout rate and career high HR/FB rate in 2022 like he did in 2020 are slim to none. Add the fact that there might be a playing time crunch and it’ll become extremely difficult to reach the high teens in value. Heck, my forecast currently calls for him to earn negative value in a 15-team league, but that’s subject to change based on his playing time outlook!

Verdict: STILL A BUST

Jose Abreu

Abreu’s 2020 performance is going to stick out like a sore thumb over his career. His HR/FB rate skyrocketed, while his BABIP jumped to the second highest of his career, just below the mark he posted during his 2014 debut. Both his actual HR/FB rate and xHR/FB rate fell right back to his pre-2020 levels. In 2020, he also outperformed his xBABIP by his highest degree since 2015, so the regression monster did its work in 2021.

One of the overlooked stats that will make it near impossible to earn near his 2020 value is his RBI. In 2020, he was on a 151 RBI pace given the same number of plate appearances he recorded in 2021. 151 RBI!!!! He was also on a 108 runs scored pace, versus a current career high of just 95. He recorded career best paces in all four fantasy categories, and paces he’s unlikely to ever come close to again.

The lesson here is pretty clear. When a 33-year-old who has always been good suddenly enjoys an elite performance over less than half a season of PAs, don’t weight that performance very heavily. Age and especially sample size need to be accounted for so recency bias doesn’t cause you to draft him in the second round.

Verdict: STILL A BUST

Wil Myers

Like others on this list, Myers came off a career short season. His strikeout rate hit its lowest since 2016, while his HR/FB rate jumped into the high 20% range, the first time it rose over 20%. However, from a 29-year-old, it’s a bit less suspicious than from the 33-year-old Abreu just discussed. His xHR/FB rate actually justified the surge, but unfortunately his power disappeared last season, as his average distance declined and barrel rates dropped.

Surprisingly, Myers hasn’t recorded 600 PAs since 2017, but better health, and less of a logjam in San Diego, plus the DH, means there’s a good chance he does record his highest total since. That should help, but I don’t think it will be enough to earn at least $17. I expect him to fall a bit short, but earn significantly more than in 2021.

Verdict: STILL A BUST





Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Nathanmember
8 months ago

I feel like the Betts blurb needs to mention that he is still injured.

scotth855member
8 months ago
Reply to  Nathan

He’s not, though. He had a stomach flu from my understanding.

elsicilian
8 months ago
Reply to  Nathan

Probably should also mention that he’s now eligible at 2B in some leagues, which enhances his value substantially.

scotth855member
8 months ago
Reply to  Nathan

But he’s not. He said he’s fine and has been out with a stomach bug, I believe.