I wrote a feature for a forthcoming fantasy baseball magazine about players with the potential to make or break your season. Due to space constraints, some of the copy lay on the cutting room floor as the magazine shipped to print. Rather than let it go to waste, I figured someone may enjoy reading my leftover snippets for players with volatile outlooks for the 2018 seasons. (The rest you’ll find on physical and digital bookshelves sometime in spring.)
I’ll present each blurb as is and, afterward, provide links to relevant work I’ve written related to that player as well as any final thoughts I couldn’t originally fit into my word count limits. It’s worth noting the target audience includes fantasy baseball enthusiasts of all skill levels, some of which invariably fall short of those of typical RotoGraphs frequenters. Alas, I made my best effort to conduct worthwhile analysis without getting overly technical.
Ordered roughly by expected average draft position (ADP).
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Robbie Ray, ARI SP
Ray littered sleeper lists last spring by flashing elite left-handed velocity and a wipeout slider en route to MLB’s 5th-best strikeout rate. He failed to earn widespread trust, however, by allowing baserunners and failing to prevent them from scoring at historically bad rates. His propensity to allow hard contact supported the notion he was too inconsistent to make his stuff play up and his 4.90 ERA and 1.47 were deserved.
The narrative completely unraveled in 2017. Ray showed he belongs in the “ace” conversation while allowing hard contact even more frequently than in 2016. In abandoning his very pedestrian sinker for a now-plus curve, Ray induced swinging strikes at an eye-popping rate and elevated his game beyond what even his most bullish proponents expected. One must give credit where it’s due: the baseball gods, having heard Ray’s internal cries for help last year, repaid him with historically good baserunner prevention.
Few pitchers, if any, have ever been more volatile in a two-year span. (The use of “historically” here is no exaggeration.) Ray’s 2018 projection invariably lies somewhere between 2016 Ray and 2017 Ray: ratios you wish were a bit better, but with strikeouts you can’t ignore. If you want a piece of the action, you’ll likely have to draft him near his true-talent ceiling, tolerate his inefficient outings, and pray he doesn’t regress. There’s sky-high upside, especially if Ray improves his command. However, it’s difficult to reconcile his hard-contact vulnerabilities with the threat of a 2016 repeat lingering in the rear-view mirror.
Recency bias dictates fantasy owners will remember Ray’s 7.6% walk rate (BB%) over his final 43.1 innings as rationale for drafting him at his ceiling, which he could reach should he sustain such gaudy strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) numbers. It’s worth knowing Ray has done this before, so it’s not without precedent: he walked 6.6% of hitters across 13 starts in 2015 (during which he drummed up 77.1 innings of 3.13 ERA ball) and 6.5% of hitters across 16 starts in 2016 (92.2 innings, 3.17 FIP / 2.90 xFIP). Note his ebb and flow. Consider this, as well as his luck on balls in play and stranded runners, in tandem. Or not at all. Up to you.
- Robbie Ray Already Made Adjustments We Should Care About (8/23/16)
- Yeah, It’s Another Post About Robbie Ray and BABIP (1/23/17)
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Byron Buxton, MIN OF
Buxton finally (ah, finally, at the ripe old age of 23) made good on most of his promise as a five-tooled phenom, hitting for power, running wild, and flashing Gold Glove-caliber leather in center field. Still, strikeouts remained a problem for Buxton. His plus speed gives him an uncanny ability to leg out grounders for infield hits – no one has a higher rate of infield hits since his debut — but contact woes prevented him from being anything more than a league-average hitter.
It would be irresponsible to not mention the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Buxton’s breakout: he hit like Gary Sanchez after the All-Star Break. His gains coincided with a steady diet of fastballs, but as the summer wore on, those gains deteriorated as pitchers mixed in more breaking and off-speed stuff. All told, one month of insane productivity – eight home runs, eight steals, a .324 average – propped up Buxton’s season almost entirely on its own.
A wise man once said, “30 is the new 20.” (Surprisingly, he was talking about strikeout rates.) Alas, if Buxton never patches the holes in his swing, a 30% strikeout rate won’t prevent him from being a productive big-leaguer. He has already proven that. But it will also resign him to being a merely average hitter with decent power and elite speed – kind of like a glorified Keon Broxton, whom the fantasy community overrated last year. Buxton’s athletic ability keeps a true breakout well within reach – he should have no shortage of playing time, and his power-speed combination will provide bountiful counting stats – but his high draft stock ensures you’ll take on a fair amount of risk to gamble on his upside.
I’m generally risk-averse, but if Buxton is a legitimate top-75 pick, he likely won’t break even unless he makes significant strides in his plate discipline, as noted above. The late-season power surge is nice, but his contact quality didn’t markedly improve — his exit velocity remained stable prior to (85.1 MPH) and during (85.0 MPH) his power surge to conclude the season. To further attest: he outperformed his expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) by 10 points before August (.271 to .261 — nothing to write home about) and by 70 points after (.371 to .301 — definitely something to write home about). I’m not remotely out on Buxton, but I’m fading him hard in 2018.
- SSNS: Buxton, Lucroy, Hamels, Tanaka (5/3/17)
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Carlos Gonzalez, FA OF
When Gonzalez is producing normally, laundry list of injuries in tow, he’s a top-12 outfielder. Suffice to say, 2017 was not normal for Gonzalez. No longer a five-category stud, his value now hinges on power and his once-routinely high batting average. When one craters, it’s manageable. When both crater, it’s a nightmare.
Gonzalez’s average exit velocity and launch angle fell markedly from 2016 to 2017. For context: Chad Pinder, a decidedly lukewarm A’s prospect, barreled up more pitches in half a season than Gonzalez did. Statcast estimates Gonzalez underperformed his wOBA by about 30 points, which would account for almost his entire deficit from previous years. This would be great news if he didn’t also underperform his wOBA by roughly 30 points in each of 2015 and 2016, too, suggesting that might just be his thing.
Gonzalez anti-truthers have called him a glorified platoon man for years, and they’re right. At this point, he’s so much better against righties than lefties that he might be more productive for fantasy (and, perhaps, real baseball) purposes in fewer plate appearances facing exclusively righties. (It remains to be seen how [insert future team name here] will utilize him, i.e., in a platoon or something more.)
A small glimmer of hope with which to leave you: CarGo reportedly saw a sleep doctor and returned to using his old bat grip late in 2017. Thereafter, he hit .377 with six of his 14 home runs coming in September. You know, in case you needed something to make the decision to select him in the middle rounds of your draft more puzzling.
Honestly, I was completely done with CarGo until I read about the grip thing. (And the sleep doctor thing, although I’m a little less sold on that.) Hadn’t even realized he had such a nice September, and now I’m rethinking everything. I guess if he falls far enough, I’ll grab him, and only in shallower formats where the core of my roster is already constructed to handle his risk.
- Nothing for 2017
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Kevin Gausman, BAL SP
“Raise your hand if you’ve been personally victimized by Kevin Gausman.” A consensus top-40 prospect in 2013 and 2014, Gausman has alternated bad-not-horrible and good-not-great seasons at the big-league level. After cracking the 30-start threshold for the first time in 2016 with satisfactory results (8.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a 3.61 ERA), he appeared poised to take the coveted Next Step.
Instead, he disintegrated. Among 70 pitchers who threw 75 or more innings by June 20, Gausman recorded the worst ERA (6.60) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.5 K/BB). Then, from June 21 onward, he experienced an astounding reversal of fortune. Gausman changed his release point, helping him pile up elite K’s and cut down his walks to a league-average level en route to a 3.39 ERA. He simply had never looked better than he did in those final 19 starts of 2017. Sure, he was due to regress – no one can reasonably be as bad as he was for that long – but Gausman also made tangible adjustments that cultivated massive improvements.
It’s easy to dismiss Gausman, who for years has mostly let down (and, in 2017, severely burned) owners. Inconsistency has always plagued him; it’s the obvious asterisk preventing a full-on endorsement. But if his arm slot adjustment is a legitimate and permanent fix, he could (actually, finally) be due for a legitimate breakout campaign and (actually, finally) reach his ceiling. It’s just that fantasy owners have seen Gausman’s floor – it’s frighteningly low – and, for a chance at his ever-elusive upside, he’ll cost fantasy owners a mid-round pick, where other more stable mid-rotation arms can be found.
Nothing, except I’m a fan of my recent post about Gausman linked below, and I fully expect him to crap all over my fragile, trusting heart in 2018.