A couple of weeks ago, I released an article looking at four fantasy-relevant players that saw a major decline in their wRC+ from 2022 to 2023. This article is just the opposite. There were plenty of players that blew away our expectations for them entering the season. Many of the players below helped carry fantasy teams to championships. The question remains: Will these players continue their strong performances in 2024?
This is the most important thing to figure out before drafting for the 2024 season. This article uses xwRC+ (which you can read more about in the previous article or here) to evaluate each of these player’s successes and help you make a more informed decision when deciding whether to draft them next season.
Cody Bellinger- Chicago Cubs
Cody Bellinger’s final two seasons in Los Angeles were a disaster. The former MVP experienced a fall from fame that few have to go through while still in the prime years of their career. Bellinger seemed like a shell of his former self and had many people completely unsure what to do with him for fantasy baseball. On one hand, Bellinger posted a 69 wRC+ from 2021 to 2022. On the other hand, he still hit 19 home runs, stole 14 bases, and has the upside to hit .305 with 47 home runs.
The Cubs took a real-life shot on him which was good for fantasy. He was in a position to play every day and play on at least a decent roster to contribute to his counting stats. In addition, the shift ban was coming in 2023. Bellinger’s .255 BABIP from 2022 seemed bound to experience positive regression. The model was unsure what to think about Bellinger. His 2022 xwRC+ was 100. This is far from the superstar levels we have seen from Bellinger in the past, but a notable increase from his actual 83 wRC+. If he could have a 20/20 season with a wRC+ closer to his xwRC+, he would be able to maintain fantasy relevance. Even so, the model did not believe in a return to MVP form for Bellinger.
What Actually Happened:
Bellinger had his best season since 2019. His success at the plate was a huge reason why the Cubs were able to hang around in the NL playoff hunt for as long as they did. On the season, he hit 26 home runs, stole 20 bases, and hit .307. He was one of only four players to go 20/20 with an average of over .300. The other three? Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman (wait he stole 20 bases!?), and Shohei Ohtani. All three of those other players are in consideration for the MVP award. What is even more impressive about Bellinger’s season is that he posted those numbers while only playing in 130 games.
What helped fuel Bellinger’s 134 wRC+ season was a major drop in his strikeout rate. After striking out over 26% of the time each of the last two seasons, Bellinger cut his K% to 15.6%. He made more contact throughout last season cutting his whiff rate from 27.2% to 20.1%. Comparing Bellinger’s 2022 and 2023 contact ability PLV charts shows just how drastic his improvements really were:
Perhaps the biggest difference between Bellinger’s 2022 and 2023 seasons was the luck he experienced. Back when he was posting MVP numbers, Bellinger consistently ran BABIPs over .300 After two straight seasons of poor luck, Bellinger saw his BABIP increase to .319 this year. Not only that, but Bellinger saw his HR/FB% jump back up near his career averages.
What Does xwRC+ Think:
Luck was mentioned earlier, and the purpose of the model is to eliminate luck from the equation. Bellinger’s 2023 season is meaningless for fantasy managers if they cannot expect similar production in 2024. Dynasty/keeper league managers need to know if they should be selling high or expecting sustained levels of increased production moving forward.
The model had a feeling Bellinger would improve from 2022 to 2023. However, it did not forecast a 134 wRC+ being a realistic outcome. Putting his data into the model for 2023, his xwRC+ comes out to 113. While the model does believe that Bellinger made significant improvements in 2023, it does not believe that his level of success is sustainable.
One of the biggest reasons why is the decline in Bellinger’s power profile. While his sweet spot percentage improved, Bellinger’s exit velocity and barrel rate both dropped. In 2023, Bellinger hit a home run on 19 of his 26 barrels last season. 73% is well above the Major League average for home runs per barrel making regression likely heading into 2024.
Bellinger is an exciting player. He provides both speed and power while being a household name you can insert into your fantasy lineups. That being said, the model is warning you to proceed with caution. Yes, Bellinger did improve from 2022 to 2023, but you should not rely on or expect him to post a 134 wRC+ again. Considering how high Bellinger is likely to go in 2024 drafts, he is not somebody who is likely to end up on very many of my teams.
Marcell Ozuna- Atlanta Braves
Marcell Ozuna’s tenure with the Braves has been a roller coaster. After posting MVP-caliber numbers during the shortened 2020 season, it has been a rocky road filled with all kinds of distractions. Injuries, a DUI, and domestic violence concerns resulted in a suspension from the league’s office. At one point during the 2022 season, it seemed like Ozuna’s career was coming to an end.
Last season, Ozuna saw his playing time decrease, and his wRC+ sat below 90 for the second consecutive season. He managed to hit 23 home runs, but a .226 batting average made him an unreliable fantasy asset.
Entering 2023, Ozuna was left for dead in fantasy drafts. You could hardly blame anybody for not wanting to take him. Whether it be a moral issue, or the fact that he had a strong season since 2020, passing on Ozuna seemed like the right move. On top of that, the Braves’ outfield looked crowded. With Acuna and Harris locked in, Rosario and the potential for Vaughn Grissom in left, and two catchers deserving of playing time to take at-bats at DH, it seemed like Ozuna was destined for a bench role…if he even made the roster at all.
I wrote a piece during draft season last year discussing cheap power options in fantasy drafts. Part of that was inspired by xwRC+. Ozuna was featured as a potential source of cheap home runs. Entering 2023, he has six seasons in which he has hit at least 20 home runs. The power and quality of contact skills were all still very strong and his xwRC+ was 115. There was some hope out there for 2023 if you were willing to look hard enough.
What Actually Happened:
Although most of the names in the cheap power article disappointed in 2023, Ozuna was a massive success. He set a new career-high in home runs with 40 while managing to post a .274 batting average. His wRC+ increased 50 points all the way up to 139.
Apparently, there was no reason to worry about Ozuna’s playing time. He appeared in 144 games and got almost all of the DH at-bats in Atlanta’s lineup. He consistently hit right behind the heart of the order and looked much more like the Marcell Ozuna we saw earlier in his career.
Realistically, the signs of a bounce-back were there all along. His batted ball profile was simply too good to continue running BABIPs below .260. His BABIP jumped back up to .293 this season which is much more in line with his .307 career average. After back-to-back seasons of disappointing HR/FB percentages, Ozuna hit a home run on 24.7% of fly balls. Overshadowed in a record-setting Braves’ lineup, Ozuna was excellent last season. He came through in a big way for those who drafted him late or picked him up off of waivers. He was especially valuable in points leagues where his lack of stolen bases is less important.
What Does xwRC+ Think:
The model is fully buying into the success of Ozuna. Starting with his batted ball profile, it is difficult to argue with a barrel rate of over 16%. He has been barreling balls up at a high rate really since 2019 and is showing no signs of slowing down. He posted his highest exit velocity since 2019 while bringing his line drive percentage back over 20. His sweet spot percentage increasing over three percent from 2022 to 2023 is just the icing on the cake.
Ozuna’s 115 xwRC+ last season was a reason to take a shot on him. His 127 xwRC+ from 2023 is a reason to keep targeting him. Nobody wants Marcell Ozuna. Even his owners in dynasty/keeper leagues would probably be more than happy to trade him away. His off-field issues contribute, but the overall vibe surrounding Ozuna is not one that many fantasy managers want on their team. While it is difficult to describe, he does not have an attractive stigmatism which undoubtedly impacts fantasy baseball decision-making. However, the model fully believes that the Ozuna we saw this past season is primed to show up again in 2024. This could make him a draft-day steal yet again next season.
JP Crawford- Seattle Mariners
There were a plethora of prospects that were supposed to “save” the Phillies during their rebuild. Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, Mickey Moniak, and of course JP Crawford are just some of the names that stick out. Crawford has been great defensively, but disappointing offensively throughout his career. Seattle has stuck with Crawford passing over the opportunity to sign shortstops in back-to-back seasons.
2022 was more of the same. He posted a 103 wRC+ for the second consecutive season although much of that production was carried by an 11.3% walk rate. He only hit six home runs and stole just three bases. Entering the 2023 season, the fantasy community had written Crawford off. He was going undrafted and even with news that he worked at Driveline during the off-season, nobody seemed to be buying into the hype.
Not only was the fantasy community out on Crawford, but xwRC+ was as well. Despite hitting just six home runs with a .243 batting average, the model believes that Crawford got lucky in 2022. His xwRC+ was just 97. Instead of forecasting improvements, the model was ready to see more of the same from Crawford in 2023.
What Actually Happened:
The former top prospect finally broke out. The work at Driveline paid off as Crawford came out of nowhere to hit 19 home runs. Considering his previous career high was nine, this performance was incredible. His HR/FB% jumped up from 4.3% in 2022 to 12.3% in 2023. His 134 wRC+ was by far the highest of his career.
Adding to his impressive power breakout, Crawford saw his average bounce back. After posting a .243 average with a .275 BABIP, Crawford saw his average jump up to .266 with a .314 BABIP. For the fourth consecutive season, Crawford hit a line drive on over 23% of his batted balls. In fact, over his career, Crawford has never posted a line drive rate below 20% in his professional career. His on-base skills were elite thanks to a 14.7% walk rate.
From a fantasy perspective, Crawford was still not in the top tier of guys. According to FanGraphs Auction Calculator, Crawford finished as the 14th-best shortstop in fantasy. Not a bad finish, but not exactly elite either. He was even better from July forward. He hit .292/.404/.511 with a 159 wRC+ from July forward. Crawford very quietly was somebody who could have helped lead fantasy teams to a championship.
What xwRC+ Thinks:
This is the first player that the model firmly believes you should be selling high on. xwRC+ is far from a believer in Crawford and believes his numbers should have resulted in a 106 wRC+. Although this marks a slight improvement from his 2022 season, it is well below the 134 he ended up posting.
Why is the model so down on him? Quality of contact. The gains that Crawford made to his bat speed were impressive and fueled a career-high 88.3 mph exit velocity. Even with these improvements, he still posted a barrel rate of just 4.8%. Hitting 19 home runs with a barrel rate that low is nearly impossible. Crawford managed to hit a home run on 16 of 20 barrels last season. An 80% home run rate on barrels is well above the league average and is an obvious area which Crawford is likely to experience regression in. xwRC+ is not the only model to believe Crawford got lucky in the power department. Last season, his xSLG was .379 which is well below his actual slugging percentage of .438.
From a fantasy perspective, the Mariners are likely to continue batting Crawford at the top of their lineup. This will help him maintain good run totals, but the power is due for serious regression. Without much speed, Crawford is relying on this power to be an impactful fantasy player. Outside of OBP leagues, I would not be targeting Crawford in 2024 drafts. If you own him in a keeper/dynasty league, I would start looking around and seeing if anybody believes in him more than they should.
Jeimer Candelario- Chicago Cubs
After a slow start to his Major League career, Candelario finally seemed to right the ship during the shortened 2020 season. He carried his success over into 2021 and looked to be a core building block for Detroit moving forward. Unfortunately for the Tigers and his fantasy managers, everything fell apart in 2022.
After posting a wRC+ of 124 from 2020 to 2021, Candelario posted a 78 wRC+. After opening the season as a middle-of-the-lineup fixture, Candelario essentially lost his starting job as the season progressed. He hit just .217 with 13 home runs over the course of the season and left little to be excited about heading into 2023. His xwRC+ from 2022 saw that improvement was likely in 2023 but was not optimistic about him returning to 2021 levels of production. He latched onto a rebuilding Washington team heading into the season and was an afterthought in almost all fantasy drafts.
What Actually Happened:
The season started extremely slow for Candelario. On May 14, he was slashing a lowly .211/.276/.354 with just four home runs. Luckily for him, the Nationals had nobody else that they wanted to give at-bats and continued allowing Candelario to work through his slump. From May 15 until he was traded to the Cubs on July 31, Candelario’s season looked completely different. Over that timeframe, he slashed .290/.384/.566 with 12 home runs. His BABIP, which sat below .245 prior to this stretch, bounced back to .335 helping fuel his success.
Overall on the season, Candelario finished with a 116 wRC+. He was a pleasant surprise for fantasy managers who were able to pick him up off of waivers and even contributed a career-high eight stolen bases. He looked much more like the hitter we saw in 2021 than the Candelario of 2022.
What Does xwRC+ Think:
Candelario saw his wRC+ increase by 39 points from 2022 to 2023. His BABIP increased by 35 points and his HR/FB rate jumped by four percent. The question is: Were these improvements legit, or were they luck-based?
The model is buying into Candelario. His 2023 xwRC+ came out to 113. This is slightly below his actual wRC+ on the season, but the model likes what Candelario was able to do. The most notable improvement fueling the increased xwRC+ was his chase rate. Candelario chased 33.6% of pitches during 2022. As his struggles persisted, he became over-aggressive at the plate. This past season was the total opposite as he consistently laid off pitches outside of the zone. His chase rate on offspeed pitches dropped by five percent and by 5.3% overall.
The model does not think that Candelario is a superstar. That being said, in deeper formats, he is an underrated fantasy asset who showed improvements to his skillset last season. While we have to wait and see where he lands in free agency, he projects to be a nice value on draft day 2024. Keep him on your radar and do not think that this season was a fluke.