Using my Pitch Leaderboard, I identified every “new” pitch* thrown during MLB’s glorious first weekend. Then, using my Pitch Comps tool, which uses pitch specs (like velocity, spin rate, movement, and release points) to compare pitches to one another, I wanted to see if I could make any quantifiable declarations about the quality of these pitches in small samples. I can’t write about everyone, so I’ll select the most interesting ones (in my humble opinion).
(*Including existing pitches from rookies for whom we now finally have MLB statcast data as well as existing pitches thrown by players who missed all of 2021 due to injury. It will be interesting to see if the latter group looks measurably different post-injury than they did pre-injury.)
At the end of the season, I’ll revisit to find out these comps were actually indicative (i.e., “predictive,” in a sense) of quality, but it’s also strongly possible the comps will change as samples grow. This is very experimental, but it’s something I’ve wanted to try in the past but hadn’t found the motivation to do.
Why pitch comps? I know I am prone to bias watching a handful of pitches from a pitcher. I can’t scout because I can deceive myself into just about any conclusion (and I think the same can be said for most of us, whether we like it or not).
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Yesterday, I published 15 starting pitcher blurbs, just because. It involved a long prologue behind the what, when, and why of the matter. In short, I spent much of the offseason secluding my digital self from outside noise (fantasy baseball articles, Twitter opinions, etc.), forcing myself to develop opinions on as many relevant players as possible. I isolated my brain from outside analysis and biases, leaving me with only my own. I wanted to document my thoughts, both to have a point of reference during drafts and to have a record of those thoughts for accountability’s sake. If nothing else, be accountable to yourself.
At the end of yesterday’s article, I solicited recommendations from readers for more pitchers to feature. That, my friends, was an enormous mistake. Although I alleged I would pick names at random, instead I combed through 85 comments (and counting) and tallied up the most combined recommendations and up-votes. Those are the ones I’ll present here.
This offseason I set out on a personal journey. Sentences like that usually precede stories of enlightenment, and I suppose this story features some enlightenment of its own. We won’t know how much enlightenment until after the 2022 season concludes.
I’m not asked this question often, but I have been asked it often enough to have a stock answer for it. It’s some variation of, “What’s the best thing someone can do to improve as a fantasy baseball player?”, to which my answer is some variation of, “Develop an opinion about every player—well, not every player, but you know what I mean.”
This is something that, when I had more time on my hands, I used to do. But in 2020 I became a work-from-home/stay-at-home father navigating a pandemic, and I burned out. Although I managed sporadic success and positive returns on investment in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, I was lucky to escape unscathed—I was all but flying blind. I was, and still am, fortunate to have years and years of watching baseball and playing fantasy baseball to have built an encyclopedic knowledge about most players.
It’s easy, however, to miss the big changes—the breakouts, the fall-offs, the rookies. It’s easy to dismiss them, and easier yet to enter a draft room and ignore them all together. Indeed, you can build a winning team without deeply investigating these types of players, instead relying on existing knowledge about existing players. You can do it, but it’s difficult, and it’s foolish.
So, I dedicated myself to the task of developing opinions about nearly every player.
No prologue, just bold predictions. Bold, but not stupidly bold, and actionable in a way that can tangibly affect your fantasy season (for better or worse). Let’s go.
The marquee peripheral prospect hitter for 2021, Kwan comes from a long line of peripheral prospects who boast elite contact skills (José Ramírez, Jeff McNeil, Jake Cronenworth, Josh Rojas) and a smattering of other fantasy-relevant skills, be it a little bit of power, speed, or both. Kwan looked David Fletcheresque, hitting only three home runs in his first 600ish professional plate appearances, but boasting the minor leagues’ best plate skills, bar none.
After last spring, the Guardians retooled his swing ($), and Kwan hit 12 home runs and doubled his isolated power (ISO) in just 341 PA while walking more than he struck out. The result: a 154 wRC+ and about as polished a non-prospect hitter for which one could reasonably ask.
The power won’t translate perfectly—it never does—but, frankly, it doesn’t need to. A dozen homers, a dozen steals, a .300 average? He’s the second coming of Michael Brantley, who was a top-12 outfielder and top-50 player overall in 2018 on the heels of a 17-12-.309 season–something well within Kwan’s capabilities currently. He may not have the highest ceiling, but Kwan has a long, productive career ahead of him.
Sandoval is, weirdly, a divisive player this offseason. He has haters! Haters who, evidently, think he is injury-prone or he lacks command or he is inefficient or he is simply unskilled. Maybe those people are simply the embodiment of this tweet, but let’s assume they do exist:
As for Sandoval, his repertoire is a spitting image of a peak Castillo (aka before Castillo cratered a bit last year). Peak Castillo was literally the 27th player–not pitcher, player–off the board last year. There’s breakout material here, and the slightly elevated walk rate is a prerequisite.
To be fair to Sandoval, he has plenty of fans of him as a sleeper, too. I targeted him like crazy this year but tried not to force the issue by leapfrogging ADP (average draft position) too much. The result was a healthy, but not robust, share of Sandoval across my teams. Here’s to hoping he stays healthy and lives up to his potential.
Lou Trivino is the nominal closer, and some folks like the idea of A.J. Puk’s short-term(?) conversion to high-leverage relief. But Trivino is not particularly good–and Puk may not be either, sorry–whereas Acevedo spent much of the 2021 season in Triple-A serving as Las Vegas’ closer.
It’s interesting enough that Oakland appeared to be grooming Acevedo for high-leverage relief to begin with. That he recorded a 42.1% strikeout rate (K%) underpinned by an absurd 21.3% SwStr against a tidy 4.8% walk rate (BB%) suggests our friend Acevedo may possess massive skills, thanks primarily to what appears to be an elite slider and a solid change-up. His fastball is weak, but his apparently excellent control should shore up his vulnerabilities.
Even if Acevedo doesn’t pan out–and I think he will, thanks to seemingly obvious skills–his competition is exceedingly weak, such that he should inevitably find himself in high-leverage situations at one point or another this year. His National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) ADP falls outside the top-700. I would call him an afterthought if anyone were thinking about him to begin with.
This… is mildly insane. And I’m OK with that! Sometimes these things steer too bold.
To be clear, this is not a dig at Varsho. His plate skills are superb, and he hits for enough power (and chips in enough speed) to be a decent regular hitter, let alone one who is catcher-eligible. The hype is warranted, especially, if he actually finds himself in the outfield on off-days. That lineup is gutted, after all.
Hummel is a catcher-outfielder as well, although he played left field primarily at Triple-A in 2021. But he spent roughly 20% of his defensive innings behind the dish, and that should make him the Diamondbacks third catcher behind Varsho and Carson Kelly. When he’s not catching, he can play not just left field but right field, first base, and third base as well. There are super-utility capabilities here.
But this is more than just opportunity and versatility. Last year, Hummel walked more than he struck out and slashed .311/.432/.546 (.978 OPS, 151 wRC+). ATC aggregations project Hummel as Arizona’s 5th-best hitter. Steamer projections peg him as its 3rd-best hitter. And he hasn’t played a game above Triple-A yet.
He likely won’t hit for average, but he does possess a line-drive swing that could prove me wrong. Chip in a few steals and decent power, and Hummel could be a decent bench piece in deeper fantasy formats. If he collects enough playing time as a backstop, he could become immediately more important. And, of course, a Varsho (or Kelly) injury changes the complexion completely.
Inspired by Ryan Bloomfield’s annual tweet, and neck deep in several slow drafts where revealing my late-round targets could compromise my strategy, I quietly messaged Bloomfield and said something to the tune of, “this seems like an exceedingly bad idea, but, Andrés Giménez.”
A better answer is probably something like Seiya Suzuki, Jo Adell, Julio Rodríguez, or any number of high-quality, low-drafted rookies who will debut this year, some as early as Opening Day. But I went with Giménez, an already-forgotten former top prospect. A career .235/.302/.369 slash line doesn’t exactly scream “aptitude.” But it’s only 342 PA, and those 342 PA feature eight homers and 19 steals.
Giménez allegedly had–hopefully still has–“good feel for contact,” “good feel” that has yet to really manifest in his short cups of tea as a major leaguer. But I have to remind myself: he will only be 23 years old this year, and prospect growth is rarely linear.
He’s on the cusp of winning the Guardians’ starting shortstop gig. Meanwhile, he possesses top-shelf speed and enough power to not make him a complete liability for home runs. If that “good feel” comes around, perhaps his power will improve alongside his batting. After just nine home runs in 479 PA at Double-A in 2019, he did hit 10 home runs in just 233 PA at Triple-A last year.
I want to stay true to the insane prediction I made to Bloomfield in private. A 15-25-.260 would not introduce Giménez into the 1st-round conversation, but it would make him quite valuable. A small developmental step forward could work wonders, but it’s the large developmental step forward I need–at the ripe old age of 23, when these types of developments can and do often occur. Let us suspend our disbelief and hope for an absolute banger from this castaway former New York Met.
* * *
Other players for whom I considered making bold predictions: Freddy Peralta (Cy Young), Josiah Gray (breakout), Glenn Otto (breakout), Eli Morgan (fantasy-relevant), Ha-Seong Kim 김하성 (makes the leap), Jake Fraley (Robbie Grossman redux), Art Warren (top-12 closer)… none felt nearly bold enough.
On Friday, Tout Wars’ mixed salary cap (auction) league completed its draft. It’s a 15-team league that uses a 5-by-5 rotisserie scoring convention, except it replaces batting average (AVG) with on-base percentage (OBP). I transitioned into this league last year—and got absolutely eviscerated (I finished 14th of 15). I can make excuses—it was my first time playing in an OBP league and also my first time participating in a 15-team salary cap draft—but at the end of the day, the blame falls at my own feet. I planned very poorly for last year’s draft. In fact, I planned very poorly for all my drafts last year. I was a new stay-at-home/work-from-home father navigating parenthood and a pandemic. I was burned out! Fantasy baseball was not the reprieve it should’ve been; it felt like a chore.
I am rejuvenated this year. I didn’t want to embarrass myself again. I studied and wrote unique comments for more nearly 350 players (I wish I could have done more in time). I recalibrated my internal encyclopedia of player knowledge to better understand players’ OBP tendencies rather than their AVG tendencies. I was as prepared as I could possibly be given the limitations and constraints of daily life.
I will say up front: my draft went OK. I feel a lot better about it than I did last year, but I’m still not thrilled. I think that is a side-effect of drafting in a 15-team league. The pool of worthwhile players exhausts itself at just the right time in a 12-team league. In a 15-team league, you feel like you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel. It feels… not great!
An eternal pessimist, I may be underselling the quality of my team to myself, not allowing me to get my hopes up, lest I implode gloriously for a second year. ATC projections like my team, and I drafted guys I like because I think they are projected accurately or even slightly bearishly, allowing for upside. I didn’t really draft anyone who left a bad taste in my mouth. That’s a minor victory in and of itself. Of course, if my team sucks, then maybe the lesson learned is not that my team didn’t leave a bad taste, but that I simply have bad taste.
Recently I published my Peripheral Prospect hitters for 2021. In a perfect world I would have published my thoughts on a wider array of hitters periodically throughout the season. Alas, this is not a perfect world, so I settled for a year-end catch-all post.
Rinse and repeat for pitchers. The rules: (1) They pitched in the high minors (Double-A or Triple-A) but not the MLB level, and (2) they cannot be featured on any prominent top-100 list. Top-100 updates count (and all due respect to those updated lists, because revising your priors is not a bad thing!).
Brace yourselves: I’m kicking this off with three Cleveland farmhands with whom I implore you must familiarize yourself. Eight Peripheral Prospect pitchers for your fine Wednesday:
In a former life, I had the time and energy to keep up with Peripheral Prospects on a semiweekly basis. That dream hibernated in 2020 when the pandemic killed the minor league season and died for good this year when I simply failed to uphold my end of the bargain.
But I love Peripheral Prospects and the inexact science/exact art of digging up breakout fringe and non-prospects with potential to make waves at the big-league level despite lacking the requisite hype. These breakouts make for feel-good stories, but for fantasy baseball purposes they’re market inefficiencies that can change the trajectories of dynasty (or even redraft) teams.
So, I want to spill at least a little bit of digital ink in honor of my favorite Peripheral Prospect hitters (and pitchers, coming in a separate post). A year-end catch-all post loses the dynamics of the ebb and flow of player performance; I benefit from these slash lines being etched in stone. But that hindsight should make the selections here a bit tighter than might have normally been picking five fresh names every other week for six months.
Anyway, here’s my list of top-8 Peripheral Prospect hitters from 2021 (because 10 was too many—this is rarefied air, y’all). The only rules: (1) They played in the high minors (Double-A or Triple-A) but not the MLB level, and (2) they cannot be featured on any prominent top-100 list. I’m going to rank them loosely from favorite to least-favorite. Let’s go!
Back in 2019, Brad Johnson and I co-authored a weekly series called “Peripheral Prospects” that was extremely fun to write and (in my opinion) dropped some genuinely good nuggets on unloved fringe- and non-prospects. Because many of the players featured throughout the series did not debut in 2019 or even in 2020, I wanted to publish a post dedicated to keeping an eye on some of those circa-2019 peripheral prospects this past season.
That’s pretty much it. In the coming weeks, I’ll post lists of my favorite peripheral prospect hitters and pitchers for the 2021 season. Until then, let’s review how some of my favorite peripheral prospects from 2019 performed in 2021.
It’s cliché to say “you know the drill,” but you do! You do, indeed, know the drill! The one thing about bold predictions that gets me up on my soapbox every year is what it means to be bold. There’s bold for shock value, bold to be bold. (Or, not bold enough—its own problem.) And then there’s sufficiently bold (per market sentiments) but readily achievable.
Much of this is qualitative, so “sufficiently bold” and “readily achievable” are eye-of-the-beholder types of descriptors. But we can at least measure sufficient boldness using average draft position (ADP) data. All fantasy baseball websites use them; I use National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) data because it involves high-stakes players. (Let it be known that high-stakes does not always equal high-talent, but that’s altogether another soapbox.) Moreover, we can filter NBFC ADP by date range, so I can leverage ADP specifically from the final week of spring training by which time ambiguous spring training storylines have solidified.
I’m proud of my success this year. I hope a few of these picks were worthwhile for you, if you happened to heed them exclusively because of this post. That’d be quite brave of you!
(“Year-end rank” courtesy of Razzball’s player rater.)
Hi! Disclaimer: In this post I use raw Statcast data to calculate expected batting average (xBA). Evidently the raw data do not include the sprint speed adjustment that the Statcast folks said they made. That adjustment only shows up on player pages and in the search. This explains why it seemed to me an adjustment had not been made! The xBA values on player pages are much closer than the raw values and look similar to what I have presented below, and it explains my confusion herein regarding the matter.
So, this post reinvents the wheel a bit. Perhaps it can serve as a mini-primer or -tutorial for you. At the very least it can serve as further validation of the work that the folks at Statcast completed and instituted a couple of years ago. Just keep in mind that the original post below remains intact, completely unedited.
Thanks for reading!
It has always seemed rather obvious to me that Statcast’s expected batting average (xBA) failed to properly account for a hitter’s speed (“sprint speed”). It seemed like fast hitters routinely outperformed their xBAs while slower hitters underperformed. In looking at a Statcast-era leaderboard (2015-21) of differentials between actual and expected batting averages on ground balls, obvious names rise to the top: Delino DeShields, Dee Strange-Gordon, Eduardo Núñez, Billy Hamilton, Jose Altuve, Jonathan Villar, Norichika Aoki, Mallex Smith, Jean Segura, Adam Eaton, Starling Marte… the list of players who have historically outperformed their xBAs by the widest margins are (were) all elite speedsters. At the other end of the spectrum, post-prime sluggers: Justin Smoak, Chris Davis, Logan Morrison, Jay Bruce, Kendrys Morales, etc. etc.
I thought this exact phenomenon, which is not a revelation by now, had once nudged the Statcast team to apply a sprint speed adjustment to xBA. Apparently, this happened sometime between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Here’s the original snippet, which I very lightly edited for clarity: