MLB Short Season Strategy: Survival of the Luckiest?
Greg Jewett takes a look at how the shortened season is impacting statistical trends for both pitchers and hitters alike and how much luck is playing into this season!
When playing fantasy baseball in a marathon over a 26-week season, slumps do not cause too much panic since there’s time for things to even out. Waking up with 25 percent of the season finished for teams like the Yankees, Rays, and Twins puts things under a much bigger microscope. With a trade deadline looming at the end of the month, could Detroit be a buyer? Do not laugh, the Tigers reside in second place right now in the American League Central with a bevy of young arms ready to wreak potential havoc if they decide to go for it.
Oakland could put the Astros down by 5.5 games if they finish the sweep of their series on Sunday and extend their winning streak to nine games. Armed with a deep and pliable veteran bullpen, the A’s could enhance it with the return of A.J. Puk in a Josh Hader type role circa 2018. Living in a world with the Rockies ahead of the Dodgers after one quarter of the season to play would not be abnormal in a full season, but in this truncated one it puts Colorado in the thick of the expanded playoffs and they get six games at home in the upcoming week.
Delving into the fantasy aspect of all this, batting averages are down, quality starts remain scarce and bullpen situations seem even more volatile. Prior to Saturday’s slate of games, starting pitchers averaged 4.74 innings per start with a 4.18 ERA, 4.21 FIP and 1.23 WHIP with a 23 percent strikeout rate and 8.7 walk percentage. There have been five complete games but four via the new seven-inning doubleheader rule. About 27 percent of starts result in a quality one, 104 as reported by Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic prior to Saturday. With this in mind, there were 30 games started on Saturday courtesy of a doubleheader between the Yankees and Rays with seven quality starts logged (23.3 percent) keeping this number viable. Thanks to the work by Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs, this chart lays it out in terms of starting pitching like the playoffs in this sprint of a season:
As if this season would not be daunting enough for fantasy owners, factoring in the weather, COVID-19 effects and how teams will approach manipulating service time, things get even more chaotic. For instance:
Fourteen of the #Phillies 60 games (23.3 percent) will be part of seven-inning doubleheaders.— Todd Zolecki (@ToddZolecki) August 7, 2020
It feels like an anomaly, but the Cardinals, if and when they resume play will be facing a schedule laden with doubleheaders. This will tax their staff and owners of Jack Flaherty do not know how many innings or starts he will make at this point. As for service time, philosophies will vary but Miami’s doing its best to keep arms on the mound with a churn and burn approach:
As Humberto Mejía throws out the first pitch, this is seven straight games where a different player on the Marlins has made his Major League Debut. Not Marlins debut keep in mind - MAJOR LEAGUE debut. Think about that.— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) August 7, 2020
Move this number to eight since Daniel Castano made his major league debut on Saturday against the Mets. Pitchers get scratched at the last minute, injuries continue to pile up and Pittsburgh will be starting a pitcher on Sunday who did not retire a batter on Friday with word of Joe Musgrove suffering an ankle injury putting Steven Brault on the mound to essentially wear it for the team.
Before moving forward, this picture seems to encapsulate how it feels as an analyst to stay ahead of the curve and survive this unprecedented time in fantasy baseball:
New Balance just can’t be happy with me. pic.twitter.com/4KF3ed9CUX— Jared Hughes (@locatejared) August 8, 2020
As for the baseballs, reports suggest they provide more drag than last year. It comes as no surprise the MLB cannot control how baseballs get manufactured, it just punctuates the year to year difference in statistics.
The ball is different, again! This time it has been dejuiced, so we're back to roughly 2018 levels of air resistance. This helps explain why offense is down--we would expect HR to drop by 10% or so with an increase in drag of this magnitude. https://t.co/gMjG4OvnZy pic.twitter.com/gMCc2LHGXn— Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) August 7, 2020
And then, this from the same writer:
I believe that MLB did not intend for the ball to be different this year, per Maury's reporting. But their inability to control the baseball's year-to-year aerodynamics seems to be why we've had such wild, unprecedented swings. https://t.co/zoNApnSDs7— Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) August 7, 2020
As of Sunday morning, there have been 505 home runs over 13,503 at-bats with a 14 home run per fly ball percentage and one home run every 26.7 at-bats. Last year, a record 6,776 home runs occurred in 166,651 at-bats with a 15.3 home run per fly ball percentage and one every 24.6 at-bats. It may be slightly down, but not sure it’s a big issue with the lower drag coefficient. Weather and hitters getting their swings dialed in may make this a moot point as August ensues.
Before doing FAAB runs in NFBC leagues this evening, keep in mind this:
This is accurate: The Pirates' flight to St. Louis on Sunday has been canceled, as has their game Monday against the Cardinals, sources tell ESPN. By tomorrow, the teams will have a better sense as to whether they'll play Tuesday and Wednesday. Cards are up to 11 games missed. https://t.co/yBFY8hAZ8q— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) August 9, 2020
There’s a chance the entire series between Pittsburgh and St. Louis may not occur, which would be beneficial to a Pirates pitching staff in the midst of giving up 28 runs to the Tigers over the last two days. Plus, this from the Cardinals beat writer:
“I don’t know what really our future looks like at this point,” Mozeliak said. #stlcards brace for additional positive tests, more missed games, and the possibility they’ll be sidelined again until virus halts spread through team. https://t.co/iJTmy9KZ9Z— Derrick S. Goold (@dgoold) August 8, 2020
Last, but not least, the shortened summer camp potentially put hitters behind the eight ball. We often complain about how long spring training takes and if it’s necessary but prior to any games on Sunday, the league batting average of .231 spanning over 14,000 at-bats seems concerning. Last year, hitters recorded a league batting average of .252 and in 2018 (if the baseball is in fact similar) the league average of .248 still resides ahead of this year’s rate. Long story short, do not panic about batting average right now in fantasy. With 75 percent of the season remaining, things should improve for hitters who will migrate towards the numbers on the back of the baseball card, right?
Taking all of this into account, looking over the last statistical year may reveal some intriguing angles when targeting players to trade for to move up in the standings. (For research purposes, these numbers do not include Saturday’s contests.) Noting power remains a bit behind, over the last 365 days, here’s the leaders in home runs:
Nicholas Castellanos, Cincinnati 22, .318/.363/.682
Aaron Judge , New York Yankees 22, .265/.340/.640
Jorge Soler , Kansas City 20, .285/.385.620
Eugenio Suárez , Cincinnati 20, .263/.375/.587
Nolan Arenado , Colorado 19, .306/.381/.617
Matt Olson , Oakland 18, .265/.369/.553
Perhaps in 2021 drafts, Soler will be treated like the breakout slugger he is rather than being overlooked because he’s not a name brand. For the stolen base crowd, here’s the leaders in the last statistical year:
Jonathan Villar , Miami 18, .283/.348/.465
Tommy Pham , San Diego 17, .273/.361/.421
Jon Berti, Miami 14, .258/.341/.363
Trea Turner , Washington 12, .243/.341/.492
Ronald Acuña Jr. , Atlanta 12, .236/.344/.486
Victor Reyes , Detroit 11, .327/.351/.473
Victor Robles , Washington 11, .287/.348/.426
Trevor Story , Colorado 11, .310/.392/.544
Bryce Harper , Philadelphia 10, .280/.388/.617
Odds remain high two of the guys above could be widely available on the waiver wire in Berti and Victor Reyes . Of this group, only Villar (10), Turner (10), Acuna Jr. (13), Story (14) and Harper (17) have double digits in home runs as well.
In terms of RBI, some surprises but it’s:
Alex Bregman , Houston 52, .322/.436/.664
Matt Olson , Oakland 51
Nick Castellanos , Cincinnati 49
Kyle Seager , Seattle 49, .271/.358/.524
José Abreu , Chicago White Sox 48, .300/.357/.517
Last, the most overlooked numbers in fantasy, runs. Ask Adam Ronis. Here’s the top five:
Nick Castellanos , Cincinnati 49
Aaron Judge , New York Yankees 46
Jose Altuve , Houston 46, .272/.323/.527
Juan Soto , Washington 45, .281/.405/.614
Trea Turner , Washington 45
In an effort to provide a way to overcome the constant struggle to fill in roster spots for an active roster, targeting players with multiple eligibility in the midst of playing fantasy baseball during a pandemic seems even more important. Given the fluidity of playing time, games lost to COVID-19 and the influx of relievers earlier in games wreaking havoc on batting averages, it’s survival of the luckiest. So, having players eligible at more than one position becomes tantamount to success with 45 games remaining for most teams, unless it’s the Cardinals. Here’s a few intriguing names to consider as fantasy Swiss Army Knives:
Isiah Kiner-Falefa , Texas
What if I told you a catcher eligible player sits second in the major leagues in stolen bases (4) with an average above .300? Seems pretty sweet, right? Well, he’s not a unicorn, it’s Kiner-Falefa. He’s playing full-time at third base for the Rangers so he will not be catcher eligible next year but his .342/.392/.447 slash line comes with a .310 expected average. Any power would boost his appeal but he’s eligible at catcher and third base.
Donovan Solano , San Francisco
While many await the shoe to fall on Solano, he’s leading the majors in batting average (.462) through his first 55 plate appearances with eight runs and 14 RBI. Solano’s added three MPH to his average exit velocity this year (90.1 MPH) with a .355 expected batting average and .544 expected slugging percent. On Yahoo, he’s eligible at second base and shortstop. Solano’s the actual Luis Arraez add to insulate batting average with some actual counting statistics.
Austin Nola , Seattle
Wait, there’s two catchers who may help out in fantasy on the waiver wire? It may take some patience in leagues with a 20-game minimum in season to gain eligibility, but in leagues which use 10 games, Nola can be used at first base and catcher. On Yahoo, Nola can be deployed at catcher, first base and second base. Through 11 games, Nola’s hitting .324/.395/.588 with four runs, a home run and seven RBI. He’s improved his average exit velocity to 90.5 MPH this season fueling his surge in hard hit rate trading ground balls for line drives.
Dylan Moore , Seattle
Overall, the Mariners offense does not stand out. However, they remain aggressive on the bases and the multi-eligible Moore benefits. He’s been hitting second prior to a mini-slump preceding his day off on Saturday but, Moore’s appeared in 10 games with 39 plate appearances scoring seven runs, hit two home runs and swiped three bases with a .289/.308/.553 slash line. He’s produced five barrels of his 25 batted ball events pushing his average exit velocity to 93.9 MPH and his expected slugging percentage to .557 with a 56 percent hard hit rate.
Jake Cronenworth, San Diego
An injury to Eric Hosmer opened the door for Cronenworth to make an impact on the Padres lineup. He’s currently hitting .333/.357/.778 with six runs, two home runs and four RBI. On Yahoo, he’s a Yahtzee player eligible at first base, second base and shortstop along with both extra infield slots (middle, corner). His average will regress but Cronenworth’s zone contact rate of 93.3 percent and five barrels of his 22 batted ball events fuel a 63.6 sweet spot percentage. Underlying numbers can be deceiving but Croneneworth’s .371 expected average and .851 expected slugging suggest he’s not a flash in the pan as of now.
This sets up as another volatile week if the Cardinals do in fact not play any of its three games against the Pirates. With eyes on the days ahead here’s a few parting thoughts to consider:
Detroit plays a double header later this week, moved Tyler Alexander to the rotation and may need an arm to fill-in. Could Casey Mize be promoted and force the team’s hand keeping him in the rotation? This may be the last weekend to stash him cheap.
Spencer Howard makes his MLB debut later today for the Phillies. Same.
Believe in Rafael Montero , many will not, making him a nice saves option going forward. There will be implosions along the way, but his franchise believes in him.
On air with Howard Bender last year, I predicted a second half breakout on Tyler Mahle . Perhaps a year too soon, but his two starts this week could cement his spot in the Reds rotation.
Thanks for reading, be sure to remain safe and well. Also, stay with Fantasy Alarm to remain ahead of the competition across all fantasy formats. Until next Sunday, be great and keep grinding in fantasy baseball leagues. There’s time to make moves in the standings.