It’s Never Too Early For Sleepers* by Nicklaus Gaut October 27, 2021 Even though the World Series has just started, sleeper season has arrived for we who laugh haughtily at the idea of an offseason. So, like any good tout, I’m busy preparing for the winter by searching for the players that you’ll wish you would’ve drafted this time next year. But first, the asterisk. Let’s just skip any philosophical debates about what does or does not constitute a sleeper, as its definition is very user-dependent and can range from very broad (any player, regardless of round/price that you think will return a substantial ROI) to very narrow (the out-of-nowhere player that returns Mullins-esque value). Let’s just say that I keep my definition pretty loose, looking for players that I think will return big value relative to their price but also ones who I’m confident will, for whatever reason (boring vet, bad team, etc), be easier to acquire. Low Q-rating guys, if you will. However, this is all just a lesson in chaos, as we don’t yet have any actionable ADP, making it technically impossible for anyone to be a sleeper, as anyone I name (in theory) could end up having an ADP high enough to negate their previously given sleeper status. It’s all very technical, really. Actually, it’s not, so let’s just look at a couple of players I think will vastly out-earn their hypothetical ADP. Jeimer Candelario, 3B, Detroit Tigers 1st Half: 344 PA – 5 HR – 37 R – 24 RBI – 0 SB – .262 AVG 2nd Half: 282 PA – 11 HR – 38 R – 43 RBI – 0 SB – .282 AVG If you want some low Q-ratings, Detroit is a good place to start and Candelario has the type of boring “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” fantasy profile that isn’t likely to garner more attention. Because while his season line (16 HR – 75 R – 67 RBI – 0 SB – .271 AVG) may not seem that fantasy relevant, it was good enough to be a borderline top-10 third baseman according to our auction calculator, as well as the Razzball player rater. But being a borderline starter at your position does not a sleeper make and what makes me even more in on Candelario than I was heading into 2021, are his improvements in the second half, as well as the overall improvements over last season. Once again, the numbers weren’t sexy but they provided more overall value in the second half than Justin Turner (#49 hitter on Razzball) and Kris Bryant (#57), and just trailed Nolan Arenado (#43). Candelario’s power suffered an outage in the first half, averaging just 0.15 HR per 10 PA after running a respective 0.31, 0.21, and 0.34 from 2018-2020. But over his final 282 PA, that rate jumped back up to 0.39 HR per 10 PA, with some key power-predictors coming back up near their previous levels. Here are his half-by-half comparisons in Barrel%, Barrel% greater than 100 mph, Air% average exit velocity, and Air% greater than 100 mph: Jeimer Candelario by Half Brl% Brl% 100+ mph Air% Avg EV Air% 100+ mph First Half 7.2 7.2 90.8 26.4 Second Half 11.1 10.6 92.8 33.3 I’m not saying Candelario is suddenly going to pop off for 30+ HR but 20-25 HR seems a pretty safe range and heading into his age-28 season there might still be some room to grow. But given his other categorical contributions, I don’t need much more. Particularly given that he’s also a deuce machine in a home ballpark made for them, with his 42 doubles in 2021 tying him with Bryce Harper, J.D. Martinez, and Whit Merrifield for the major league lead. That’s decent company. Statcast backs up his second-half improvements, as well. His .282 AVG was backed by a .301 xBA, while a .375 wOBA (.396 xwOBA) and .426 wOBA on contact (.456 xwOBAcon) were also both strong on the expected front. Looking at Baseball Savant’s 250 PA rolling windows (which compares the xwOBA of a player’s previous 250 PA to the 250 PA before those), Candelario’s hotness again checks out. He has a .380 xwOBA (91st percentile) over his previous 250 PA, which is up from a .368 xwOBA (86th percentile) in his prior 250 PA. After crunching the numbers, I’m confident in declaring that to be 500 PA of some solid ball-striking. And Detroit’s offense isn’t good enough to count on a large uptick in runs and RBI but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the offense should be better in 2022. Robbie Grossman, Akil Baddoo, and Jonathan Schoop aren’t stars but they’re also far from scrubs and the impending arrival of Spencer Torkelson will bring another premium stick into the mix. Plus, rumors have been swirling for a while that the Tigers might do some spending this offseason, particularly in regards to one of the top shortstops, like Carlos Correa or Marcus Semien. If Detroit were to sign, say, Correa, you better believe that the fantasy community will start paying more attention to the rest of the Tigers lineup. While I’m not exactly sure where his draft price will end up, I find it unlikely that he’ll come in lower than a ~200 ADP. If so, that’s the kind of high-floor, easy profits I crave in the later rounds. Nicky Lopez, 2B/SS, Kansas City Royals 1st Half: 268 PA – o HR – 35 R – 15 RBI – 8 SB – .265 AVG 2nd Half: 297 PA – 2 HR – 43 R – 28 RBI – 14 SB – .330 AVG He didn’t come with any home runs or RBI but Lopez probably helped win a lot of leagues in 2021 after exploding off of the waiver wire in the second half for 14 sB, 43 runs, and a .330 AVG over 297 PA. But he’d been a glove-only, fantasy dud for the first two years of his career, slashing .228/.279/.307 over 159 games and 594 PA, with 3 HR – 59 R – 43 RBI – 1 SB. While Lopez’s second-half numbers (and his batting average, in particular) were impressive, his expected ones certainly were not: Nicky Lopez xStat Differentials by Half AVG xBA +/- wOBA xwOBA +/- wOBAcon xwOBAcon +/- First Half .265 .221 -.044 .304 .277 -.027 .297 .260 -.037 Second Half .330 .250 -.080 .351 .284 -.067 .377 .293 -.084 Those are not the gaps you are looking for, particularly in xBA because a big regression in batting average would also severely affect his carrying tool of stolen bases. Fewer hits mean fewer opportunities and his middling walk rate won’t be able to make up the difference. But I tend to give a wider berth on xBA to players with premium speed from home to first and the left-handed Lopez landed in the top-20 last season, averaging 4.19 seconds. To get a better sense of how much this speed might have played into his big xBA gaps, I did what any other totally sane person would do and watched each of his 42 hits in 2021 that had less than (or equal to) a .250 xBA. His “luckiest” hits, as it were. My personal judgment is obviously an imprecise measuring system but I came away pretty bullish, at least in terms of not being scared by Lopez’s xBA being a harbinger of batting average doom. He just gets to first so fast that his batted-ball “luck” will often be luckier than the average bear, boo-boo. Only a few of these lucky 42 were fly balls, with one bouncing off of the right-field scoreboard in Baltimore’s bandbox and a few opposite-field drifters that couldn’t be caught near the left-field line. The rest were mostly ground balls, a few where he just beat the play out, and seven of which were bunts (5) and high choppers to the pitcher. Lopez is a good bunter and only one was misplayed where he probably would’ve been out. The choppers obviously weren’t well struck but sometimes weakly hit balls work in favor of those with speed. But beyond Lopez’s speed helping on the above weak stuff, what was really encouraging was seeing how his high contact rates (85.1% Contact%, 89.2% Zone Contact%) and ability to use all fields (46.1% Straight%, 24.9% Pull%, 29.0% Oppo%) looked like it allowed him to better take better advantage of the defender’s positioning. While Lopez was only shifted against 6.0% of the time, I saw multiple instances where he picked up hits not just against a traditional shift but also when shifts by one fielder opened large holes. He had two doubles down the third baseline with a traditional shift on and another grounder down the line when there wasn’t a shift on but the third baseman was playing wa-aay off. There were two groundballs and a line drive between second and third when the shortstop was near second and the third baseman was hugging the line. It’s the epitome of “hitting them where they ain’t”. But that’s a lot easier when the gaps are wide and someone with the contact skills that Lopez has shown is willing to attack them. Given his speed and contact rate, I believe Lopez will continue to run a plus batting average, even if not to the heights of 2021’s second half. But it’ll be enough to bring a big chunk of stolen bases, as the Royals are unlikely to stop him from running, and I’m all about that red-hot speed in 2022. And while it’s hard to depend on Kansas City’s offense to help him with runs and RBI, the accumulation from playing every day should keep them from being too much of a drag on his value. Particularly if he continues to bat second, as he did in each of his final 45 games. You’ll have to eat it in HR and RBI but Lopez’s overall value will outweigh what you lose, while his speed provides upside with a scarce resource as the stolen base death spiral in MLB is likely to continue in 2022.