Drew Silva

Fantasy Roundtable

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Roundtable: 1st Half Surprises

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


 

This is the Fantasy Roundtable, where the writers of Rotoworld Baseball let the readers of Rotoworld in on a quick staff discussion. Whether it’s a top prospect arriving, a closer role changing, or we just need to vent -- our staff talks it over and you get a peek behind the curtain. It's water cooler chatter ... that we've decided to publish.


Drew Silva: It's the annual MLB All-Star break, a good time to do some looking behind and looking ahead in real-life and fantasy baseball terms. Give me a player who surprised you in the first half of the 2017 campaign, and do you expect that player's fantasy production to continue into the second half?


I’ll say Angels closer Bud Norris, who grabbed the ninth-inning job after Cam Bedrosian went down with a groin injury in late April and has held on through Bedrosian’s return. Huston Street (groin) is due back from the disabled list after the All-Star break, but he won’t be a challenger to Norris either.


Norris earned his 13th save Sunday in the Angels’ first-half finale against the Rangers, striking out one batter in a spotless frame. For the season, the 32-year-old right-hander boasts a 2.23 ERA, 1.046 WHIP, and 47/14 K/BB ratio in 36 1/3 innings. A full-time reliever for the first time in his career, he’s registered a personal-best strikeout rate on the back of a personal-best average fastball velocity of 94.2 mph.


The big worry for Norris’ fantasy owners is that he will be traded ahead of the July 31 deadline, into a setup role on a contending team. He is an impending free agent and the Angels are two games under .500 with no chance of catching the Astros in the American League West standings and only an outside shot at a Wild Card berth. Norris may very well be pitching himself out of Anaheim, and out of fantasy prominence. It’s something that hangs over many closers on non-contending clubs as front offices prepare for the wheeling-and-dealing phase of the regular season.



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D.J. Short: Alex Wood wasn’t even a sure thing to begin the season in the Dodgers’ starting rotation, but he was one of the best pitchers in the major leagues during the first half. In addition to his 10-0 record — hey, pitcher wins matter in the fantasy game — he’s sporting a 1.67 ERA and 97/22 K/BB ratio over 80 2/3 innings. That makes him the No. 4 ranked pitcher in Yahoo leagues behind only Max Scherzer, teammate Clayton Kershaw, and Chris Sale. Elite of the elite with that group.  


Wood has been a useful fantasy pitcher in the past. The 26-year-old southpaw posted a 3.35 ERA (111 ERA+) in 77 starts and 35 relief appearances between 2013-2016. But he has taken things to a new level this year thanks to an uptick in velocity and a shift in his pitch mix. Previously averaging around right around 90 mph with his fastball, he has checked in at 92.5 mph on the pitch this year while relying more on his changeup. It’s hard to argue with the results. Not only is he blowing his previous swinging strike percentage out of the water, but his ground ball percentage is among the highest in the game.


The advanced metrics are backing up what Wood is doing, as he’s tops in the majors (min. 80 IP) in both FIP (2.03) and xFIP (2.57). Meanwhile, he ranks third in SIERA (2.81) behind only Sale and Scherzer. It’s unfair to expect him to maintain a sub-2.00 ERA, but there’s nothing to suggest what he’s doing is a fluke. The only thing that could hold him back is himself. Wood had a brief stint on the disabled list during the first half due to left SC joint inflammation and he dealt with an elbow issue last year. So my concerns are more health-based than performance-based.



Ryan Boyer: I had pretty much written Jimmy Nelson off for fantasy purposes coming into this season. He's a former top-100 prospect who had shown us spurts of mixed league viability in the past, but the righty had been a headache more often than not with a career 4.38 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and 353/75 K/BB ratio over 436 innings coming into 2017. He managed to lead all pitchers with 86 walks last season even though he ranked just 50th with his 179 1/3 innings.


Something seems to have clicked with Nelson this season, though. While many starters' performances have gone in the wrong direction, Nelson has pitched the best ball of his career with a 3.30 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 118/27 K/BB ratio across 109 frames. He boasts a 2.58 ERA and 95/17 K/BB ratio over 80 1/3 innings since the start of May, and he has four 10+ strikeout games over that stretch. A changed arm slot that's led to better breaking balls seems to be a big driver of Nelson's success, as our pals Paul Sporer and Eno Sarris touched on in a recent podcast for FanGraphs. Nelson has slashed his walk rate and bumped his strikeout rate up significantly, all the while continuing to induce grounders at a near-50 percent clip. He's also held left-handed batters to a sub-.700 OPS, which is huge since they've often tormented him in the past.


I have a tough time fully buying into Nelson's improved control given how wild he's been in the past, and any regression there could lead to trouble when you're calling Miller Park home. That said, I'm comfortable in projecting Nelson to continue being a mixed league asset after the break even if the walk rate comes up a bit.



Mark Lindquist: With Aaron Judge starring in both the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game this week, it can be easy to forget just how poor of an initial impression the slugger made after being called up last August. The hulking outfielder homered in his first big league at-bat before proceeding to fall flat on his face as his first go-around with the Yankees progressed. Notably, Judge hit just .179 while striking out 42 times in 84 at-bats. He was readily available -- and for good reason -- in the back ends of fantasy drafts this spring. Indeed, he looked so unprepared to face major league pitching in 2016 that following a nice showing in spring training, the Yankees still seriously considered starting him out in Triple-A. Good decision by Brian Cashman to take the plunge.


Judge raced out to a .303/.411/.750 slash line for the month of April, a month in which he clocked 10 homers and drove in 20 runs. He has not slowed since. That .303 mark is his lowest average in any month this season. Heading into the All-Star break, he has driven in 66 runs while slashing ..329/.448/.691. He leads the majors in home runs (30), WAR (5.3) and his 208 total bases are second only to Colorado's Charlie Blackmon. After walking just nine times in 84 at-bats last year, he has drawn a whopping 61 free passes in 301 at-bats during the current campaign. The White Sox walked him intentionally with nobody on base during a June game. Things have escalated to that level.


Even with all of the terrifying offensive statistics to his name, though, some regression is almost certain on the average front given his .426 BABIP. He is also on pace to strike out more than 200 times. Despite the remaining holes in his swing -- he can be beat on good fastballs up in the zone -- Judge has yet to hit any sort of a sustained slump this year. It will be fascinating to see how he adjusts when he falls on hard times. Which will presumably happen, eventually, but even if he does find himself in a prolonged rut, I fully expect him to be in the MVP conversation come September.



Nate Grimm: It's easy to say now, but coming into the season I was a believer in the Brewers offense. We knew about Ryan Braun and Jonathan Villar (although Villar has arguably been one of the season's biggest disappointments thus far), but guys like Keon Broxton, Eric Thames and Travis Shaw (I had Shaw at No. 18 in our position rankings; he didn't make the consensus top 20, unfortunately, so you'll just have to trust me) held intrigue for me as well.


Domingo Santana was among those of interest, and in the season's first half he proved to be the Brewers outfielder to own. After a 2016 season cut short by injury, the 24-year-old is hitting .291/.384/.497 with 15 homers, 50 RBI, 54 runs scored and nine steals at the break. His .372 BABIP and his propensity for striking out (26.9 K% this year, and 31.4% for his career) say he's likely going to hit somewhere closer to .260 when it's all said and done, but nothing else in his batting profile screams regression. He's just hitting the ball hard and he's being rewarded for it, and his fantasy owners are, too.



Nick Doran: I think Yonder Alonso wears the crown for the biggest "out of nowhere" breakout. This is a guy who was a complete fantasy dud for the first seven years of his career. His career high for homers in a season was nine, and he had only 39 longballs in 664 career games. His career high for runs scored in a season was 52 and his career high for RBI was 62. Coming into this season his career slash line was .269/.334/.387. He was a decent contact hitter with very little power. He was definitely NOT the sort of first baseman that could help his fantasy owners win championships.


All that has changed this year. So far he has a .275/.372/.562 triple slash with 20 home runs, 46 runs scored and 43 RBI in 79 games. He's already more than doubled his career high in homers and if he keeps up this pace he could hit more home runs in 2017 than in his entire previous career combined. He is on pace to hit 36 home runs with 84 runs and 78 RBI, which would blow away all his career highs.


Can he keep it up? His .302 BABIP this season matches his .301 career BABIP, so we can't write off his newfound success as mere luck. His 13.1% walk rate and 23.2% strikeout rate are both career highs, indicating he is going deeper into counts looking for that one pitch he can crush. His career-high 48.7% fly ball rate shows he is looking to drive the ball in the air. His career-high 21.7% home run per fly ball rate shows he is hitting the ball further than ever before. His career-high 35.4% hard hit rate obviously shows he is hitting the ball hard more often. None of these stats are out of line with what we should expect from a stud power hitter. None of these stats indicate his success is a fluke nor that it is likely to end soon.


He is simply a different hitter than he was before. He has changed his approach at the plate. He now has the mindset of a slugger rather than a contact hitter. He should continue to pile up fantasy stats and guide his savvy owners to the top of the standings.



Jesse Pantuosco: This year has been chock-full of surprises and I wish I could touch on all of them (Logan Morrison and Jason Vargas both came to mind), but in the interest of brevity I’ll go with Justin Smoak. I mean did any of us see this coming? I sure didn’t. Smoak has shown power in bursts—he slugged 20 jacks for Seattle in 2013—but he’s taken it to a whole ‘nother level this year, swatting a home run every 13 at-bats for the Jays.

 

But that’s not even what’s impressed me the most. Somehow Smoak is hitting a robust .294 at this juncture, which is over 60 points higher than his career average. It’s pretty rare for a guy to find the light like this so late in their career (Smoak turns 31 in December), but it’s not unheard of. Yonder Alonso has had a similar breakout at age 30, as Nick mentioned earlier.

 

While I could see Smoak’s average dipping a bit in the second half, I wouldn’t expect too much regression. His contact rate is way up from last year (80.5 percent compared to 72.0 in 2016), which suggests that he’s made real strides both in his plate discipline and timing. He also plays in a hitter-friendly park at Rogers Centre in Toronto and has plenty of lineup protection hitting between Josh Donaldson and Kendrys Morales. I think a .270 average with 35-40 homers and 90 or so ribbies is a pretty fair expectation for Smoak at this point.



David Shovein: One guy who has come out of nowhere to surprise me in the first half of the season is Angels' shortstop Andrelton Simmons. He was considered an afterthought in fantasy drafts this spring, going off the board as the 36th player at his position behind the likes of Ketel Marte and Gleyber Torres.


In 90 games prior to the All-Star break, Simmons has performed capably as a five-category contributor. The 27-year-old is slashing .290/.341/.438 with nine homers, 41 runs scored, 39 RBI and 13 stolen bases. His counting stats have been boosted by hitting in the middle of a weak Angels' lineup, but that isn't something that is likely to change for the remainder of the season.


While the batting average would represent a career-best mark for Simmons, he's doing it with only a .304 BABIP, so it looks as though it should be sustainable. He also appears to be seeing the ball better, evidenced by his walk rate (7.3%) which is also the best mark of his career.


If there's one thing that may not be sustainable in the second half, it could be the massive power surge that he has experienced this season. Given the rate that balls are flying out of the ballpark around the league though, who knows. Simmons has shown power in the past, slugging 17 homers during his first full season in 2013, though he had hit just 15 total over the next three seasons. While he's hitting the ball in the air a little bit more, his fly ball rate still sits under 30%. His HR/FB rate jumps off the page at 10.6% which is nearly double his career mark and significantly higher than even the 7.9% from his breakthrough 2013 campaign.


While he isn't likely to deliver another 20+ HR/SB in the second half, Simmons has proven to be a valuable asset in mixed leagues and should continue to be a worthwhile option in the middle infield.



You can follow and/or contact all of these @Rotoworld_BB writers on Twitter: @drewsilv, @djshort, @RyanPBoyer, @markrlindquist, @Nate_Grimm, @RealNickDoran, @JessePantuosco, @DaveShovein.





Drew Silva is a baseball editor for Rotoworld and also contributes on NBC Sports' Hardball Talk. He can be found on Twitter.
Email :Drew Silva



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