New Everyday Starters — May 13, 2021

Let’s continue our look into the hitters who have been starting regularly that you may not have even realized. Will their every day playing time continue, and if so, in which leagues, if any, are they worthy of your starting roster?

Ka’ai Tom

After being selected by the Athletics over the offseason’s Rule 5 Draft, Tom was DFA’d by the team halfway through April. Two days later, he was claimed by the Pirates. After returning from the IL on Apr 27, Tom has started nearly every game in left field, including seven straight starts. As a left-hander, he figures to platoon, but the Pirates haven’t faced a left-handed starter since Apr 28! So Tom has enjoyed more playing time early on than you would have guessed.

Injury has caused the Pirates to shuffle the deck chairs, but he won’t be in imminent danger of losing his job once Colin Moran and Ke’Bryan Hayes return. Instead, it should solely depend on how Tom is performing. That’s a better situation than knowing that regardless of how he performs, injury returnees are going to reclaim their job(s) and there will no longer be a starting spot available.

Like seemingly many minor leaguers who had never gotten a real opportunity in MLB, Tom’s minor league stats are pretty solid. He has walked at a double digit rate at nearly every stop, but his strikeout rate and SwStk% has ticked up as he has climbed the minor league ladder. Still, it hasn’t gotten to a scary high level, but it does make one question if he’s ready to succeed at the MLB level.

He has been a fly ball hitter for most of his minor league career, which has at times hampered his BABIP, and at others, had no negative effect. In fact, his BABIP has ranged from a low of .291 to .370 over a third of a season at Triple-A in 2019. He’s shown a penchant for hitting line drives, but the fly ball tendency and league average IFFB% suggest it will be tough for him to post a significantly higher than league average BABIP. As a lefty, he’ll also have to prove he’s not prone to grounding to the pull side, which will get him shifted and hurt his BABIP as well.

Tom enjoyed a power surge in 2019, as his ISO jumped above .200 for the first time at both Double-A and Triple-A, while his HR/FB rate spike into the mid-teens, the first time rising into double digits. Aside from the power, he has shown a willingness to steal bases in the past, swiping as many as 23, but that fell to just five in 2019, so we probably can’t count on a double digit steals pace any longer.

If everything goes right, Tom could contribute a bit across the board, with the exception of batting average. Obviously, the Pirates aren’t the ideal offense to be relying on runs scored and RBI. I think Tom clearly has a spot in NL-Only leagues and perhaps 15-team mixed and deeper.

Kevin Pillar

Brandon Nimmo’s IL trip has given Pillar an opportunity as a regular again after joining the Mets as a presumed reserve outfielder. Nimmo is now potentially going to return this weekend, which would immediately cut Pillar’s value. So he’s definitely most at risk of losing his regular playing time. But with Dominic Smith still sitting with a .265 wOBA (despite a .356 xwOBA) and playing terrible defense, you have to wonder if Pillar might steal some of his playing time.

Pillar has been an amazingly consistent offensive player throughout his career. From 2015-2019, he posted a wOBA between .295 and .310, before pushing that up to .341 during last year’s short season. Once again, he continues to do what he does, rarely walking, striking out less than the league average, and showing some pop and speed. If he manages to keep a starting job when Nimmo returns, he’s worth considering in 15-team mixed leagues and deeper, as despite his boringness, he gives fantasy owners a bit of everything.

Taylor Ward

Ward was actually the inspiration for this two-day series, and the only reason he appears last is that I initially sorted by last 7 day PAs and he was at the bottom of the players I wanted to highlight. The Angels have suffered a rash of outfield injuries, then tried Jared Walsh in right field, before deciding to DFA Albert Pujols and keep the former as their starting first baseman. That meant it was back to the drawing board in right field, which led to Ward’s return on May 5th, and he’s started every game since.

While Ward has been in the Majors for parts of four seasons now, he has never received an extended opportunity, only recording 147 PAs at most, and that was back in 2018. The 27-year-old was last ranked as the team’s 15th best prospect back in 2018, but his minor league numbers are intriguing, both from a real baseball perspective, and fantasy. He has walked at a double digit clip in his last five minor league stops, marks that have all sat in the mid-teens, while he has only struck out more than 20% of the time at one minor league stop. He has also never posted a double digit SwStk% in the minors.

It’s pretty clear that his plate discipline rates were fantastic in the minors, so that’s an excellent foundation when trying to predict MLB success. In 2018, his power first spiked, as his HR/FB rate hit double digits for the first time. But his power wasn’t done growing. In 2019, it jumped again, as his HR/FB rate hopped over 20%, while his ISO surged to .278. All those walks and the increased power led to wOBA marks between .423 and .438 during three stints from 2018-2019. That type of production usually gets you massive hype, but instead, Ward only earned 297 PAs with the Angels from 2018-2020.

In addition to the power he has shown, Ward even flashes some speed, swiping 20 bases in 2018 and 11 in 2019. He obviously won’t be a big contributor in the category, but even a handful would add a couple of bucks to his fantasy earnings.

Right now, Ward has some time to prove his minor league success was no fluke. Eventually, top prospects Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh could push him to continue performing before they are considered for a recall. While he hasn’t yet carried over his minor league success over inconsistent playing time, I’m taking a stab here in most leagues.

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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Jolly Good Show
Jolly Good Show

This is a really good, detailed analysis.