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Are These 2023 Second-Half Sluggers for Real

Baseball has the longest season of the “big four” professional sports. The season goes through ebbs and flows with only those who are truly obsessed paying attention to the results of every single day. Even I admit that I force myself to take a five-day break once a season to avoid burning out. Thanks in part to the long duration of the season, how players end a season plays a significant role in how fantasy managers value them the following year. End on a good note and the following season is filled with optimism that the player will continue his success next season. Struggle to end the year and many wonder if the league has figured out how to handle him. This article looks at four players who dominated the second half of 2023 and tries to decipher their draft value moving forward.

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Second Half Surgers of 2023

Yainer Diaz, C, Houston Astros

The First Half

There was significant buzz coming out of the Astros’ camp during Spring Training about Diaz. A dominant Minor League season in 2022 put him on the cusp of breaking into the Major Leagues where his bat would surely find success. He beat our Korey Lee for the second catcher’s job and made the Opening Day roster. Not only was he on the roster, but he was featured in the Astros’ Opening Day lineup.

Questionable framing skills and the Astros’ desire for a veteran presence behind the dish limited Diaz’s role throughout the first half of the season. He was able to get additional at-bats whenever Yordan Alvarez was out with an injury, but he was limited to just 188 plate appearances during the first half. He finished the first half with a slash of .263/.277/.492 and a 104 wRC+. However, from May 14 to July 5, Diaz crushed 10 home runs in 126 plate appearances. That rate equates to 48 home runs in 600 plate appearances. Needless to say, fantasy managers were begging to see what Diaz could do with regular playing time.

The Second Half

Although Diaz continued to receive inconsistent playing time, his stats were incredible. His wRC+ during the second half was 46 points higher than it was in the first half. He crushed 13 home runs with a batting average of over .300. His chase rate (which remains the biggest red flag) dropped from 50% during the first half to 43.1% in the second half. Even though this is still not great, it shows solid improvement from a rookie. PLV does a great job of illustrating Diaz’s improving strike zone awareness.

Yainer Diaz

By laying off more pitches out of the strike zone, Diaz awarded himself with better pitches to hit. His batting average and power took off as a result. Diaz was a staple of many championship teams from this year and fantasy managers are eager to draft him in 2024.

How to Draft Diaz Moving Forward

The good news is that the Astros have already come out publicly and stated that Diaz will serve as their primary catcher in 2024. Martin Maldonado is no longer with the club and Diaz will have the full off-season to work with the pitching staff to develop a deeper rapport. Looking at his defensive metrics, Diaz more than held his own behind the plate last season and should not be overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being the everyday catcher. Playing time is the only thing that fantasy managers worried about in 2023 and that seems unlikely to be an issue next season.

There is no denying Diaz’s monster power, but fantasy managers need to be aware of the regression likely coming. During Diaz’s monster second half, his HR/FB% sat above 30%. The highest HR/FB% in baseball last season came from Shohei Ohtani at 31.2%. He was the only batter above 30%. Fantasy managers should not expect home runs to fly out of the park for Diaz at the rate they did in 2023.

That being said, who cares? Not to sound nonchalant, but even with regression, Diaz could still pace all catchers in home runs next season. Between DH and catcher, Diaz should reach around 575 plate appearances in 2024. At his 2023 rate, that would equate to 35 home runs. The highest home run by a catcher in 2023 was Cal Raleigh with 30. Diaz is one of the safest bets at the position to hit 25+ home runs in 2024.

Yes, his plate discipline is a bit concerning but he has never had trouble making contact. He showed improvement throughout the back half of 2023 and fantasy managers should be optimistic that these gains will stick in 2024. There are four big-time power threats at catcher. Yainer Diaz, Salvador Perez, Cal Raleigh and Francisco Alvarez. Diaz is the only one in that group with a realistic chance to hit over .270 next season. The chance for four categories from the catcher position is too tough to pass up. Yes, the draft price is high at C5, but few catchers have the same upside as Diaz.

Gabriel Moreno, C, Arizona Diamondbacks

The First Half

Moreno was widely regarded as one of the best catching prospects in baseball prior to the 2022 season. A log jam in Toronto limited his playing time and eventually led to his trade to Arizona. Although Carson Kelly was still on the roster, fantasy managers were optimistic about his 2023 outlook.

Moreno got the nod on Opening Day batting toward the bottom of Arizona’s lineup. Throughout the first month of the season, we saw exactly what we saw in the Minor Leagues. Moreno has an excellent hit tool and was able to bat .301 during this month. The issue was a lack of power as a .096 ISO left his wRC+ still 12% below the league average.

The lack of power continued throughout the first half of the season as Moreno finished with just two home runs across his first 231 plate appearances. As his offensive slump continued, the Diamondbacks began giving him more days off. Playing time was once again becoming an issue for Moreno and with his underwhelming stat line, fantasy managers were given no choice but to move on.

The Second Half

In the first game after the All-Star Break, Moreno crushed a home run. Fantasy managers should have taken this as a sign of things to come as Moreno continued this dominant offensive performance throughout the second half. Overall, Moreno slashed .313/.383/.511 with a 141 wRC+ and five home runs during the back half of the season. The lack of home runs still left plenty to be desired, but his power was coming alive in a big way. His average exit velocity jumped to 90.8 Mph and his ISO was up to .198. Moreno hit fewer ground balls which helped his power tick up.

A strong second-half performance is nice, but continuing to perform in the playoffs makes it even better. Moreno was red hot to start the playoffs, hitting four home runs in 17 games. This is only three home runs shy of his entire season total. Moreno has always hit the ball hard, he just has not gotten it in the air consistently enough to do damage. His flyball rate in the regular season was 22%. This jumped to 32.6% in the postseason. If Moreno can sustain these adjustments in 2024, he could be in for a big season.

How to Value Moreno Moving Forward

Performing well in a postseason run always creates additional hype for the next draft season. Moreno was already an intriguing sleeper pick thanks to his past prospect pedigree, but his second-half performance flashed everything coming together.

What do we know for a fact? We know that Moreno is an excellent hitter. His zone contact rate sat above 90% helping to create a stable floor for his profile. We also know his swing mechanics improved throughout the season. A high ground ball rate is the Achilles heel for many players, but Moreno was able to improve his sweet spot percentage as the season moved along. This should help produce more line drives and keep his BABIP at a stable level.

Gabriel Moreno 2024 fantasy baseball

The biggest question remaining is how legit Moreno’s power is. During the second half of last season, Moreno was valuable in two-catcher leagues, but the lack of home runs capped his fantasy upside. Moreno has always hit the ball hard and more fly balls will lead to more home runs. However, fantasy managers should not extrapolate his postseason run over a full season. During the playoffs, Moreno saw his HR/FB% skyrocket to 28.6%. This number is unsustainable. Even his HR/FB% of 21.7% during the second half is unsustainable. Moreno only barreled up five balls during the second half and all five went for home runs. Hitting home runs on 100% of barrels is far above the league average.

The Diamondbacks undoubtedly have their catcher of the future in Moreno. He has a solid offensive profile that works nicely toward the bottom of the lineup and is an elite defender behind the dish. However, fantasy managers should not enter the season expecting Moreno to produce a 141 wRC+ again. His playing time alone puts him in the fringe-catcher-one conversation, but the upside is limited. If you draft a team full of high-variance players, then providing some stability and average at the catcher position could prove useful. In contrast, if you are trying to boost your team with more upside, there are better options available. He is going right around Francisco Alvarez who possesses much greater fantasy potential thanks to his home run projections.

Ryan Mountcastle- 1B Baltimore Orioles

The First Half

Many in the baseball community have discussed Baltimore’s decision to move back the left field wall. I am not sure anybody is more upset about it than Ryan Mountcastle. Back in 2019, Camden Yards was the best park in baseball for right-handed batters to hit home runs. Now, Baltimore ranks 20th in all of baseball. While this has undoubtedly impacted Mountcastle’s home run totals, this was not the biggest issue for him early on.

At the end of May, Mountcastle was slashing .239/.271/.448. He was chasing just about everything that pitchers were throwing, leading to high whiff rates and a low batting average. Injury caused him to miss a month of the season before the All-Star Break and he finished the first half with an 86 wRC+.

The Second Half

Upon returning, Mountcastle’s role on the team was uncertain. Ryan O’Hearn was swinging a hot bat at first base and the team was reluctant to remove him from the lineup. Just as fantasy managers (myself included) began to move on from Mountcastle, he exploded. From July 21 forward, Mountcastle slashed an impressive .325/.412/.494. He crushed seven home runs with an impressive 154 wRC+. His barrel rate came back down to earth, but his exit velocity numbers were still incredibly strong. After experiencing some misfortune in his BABIP during the first half, that statistic overcorrected itself to .388 in the second half.

Most importantly, Mountcastle began making better swing decisions. After struggling to identify good pitches to swing at during the first half, Mountcastle looked like a different hitter. His chase rate dropped to 36.5% which allowed him to make more contact. PLV illustrates the drastic change in Mountcastle’s profile as the season moved along:

Ryan Mountcastle PLV

How to Draft Mountcastle Moving Forward

Right from the start, there needs to be an understanding that Mountcastle will not be batting .325 in 2024. Although the changes he made are encouraging (lowering his strikeout rate for the second straight season) Mountcastle was running an unsustainably high BABIP throughout the second half. His line drive tendencies and ability to use the whole ballpark make it likely for his BABIP to remain over .300, but never above .350. Fantasy managers should expect an average between .265 and .285. There is sneaky OBP value to be had here as well as his high average and increased walk rates could provide nice value.

The biggest concern for 2024 is how much Mountcastle plays. The Orioles lineup is incredibly crowded. O’Hearn put together a breakout season, Santander is likely better suited in a DH/1B role, Heston Kjerstad is sitting in the Minor Leagues, and then you have Mountcastle who has been better against lefties than righties throughout his career. There is a chance Mountcastle could find himself losing playing time to some of these left-handed bats as the season moves along which would drain his fantasy value. There is also the chance Mountcastle gets dealt away this off-season. This turns him into an intriguing flyer with upside.

Surprisingly, the fantasy community does not seem to be overweighting his strong finish to the 2023 season. In early drafts, Mountcastle is going as 1B22 right behind Andrew Vaughn and right ahead of Brandon Drury. While Vaughn and Drury are locked into everyday roles in 2024, neither gets to play in the same quality lineup that Mountcastle does. Mountcastle also posted 80th percentile xBA and 89th percentile xSLG in 2024. At his draft price, fantasy managers should be all in to see if his second-half performance sticks.

Max Kepler- OF, Minnesota Twins

The First Half

Every off-season it seems like there is somebody out there ready to give Max Kepler another chance. I have been guilty of it more than once, and it is easy to see a path to success. After the 2019 season during which he hit 36 home runs, Kepler seemed like a budding star. He has maintained strong exit velocities, barrel rates, contact numbers, walk rates, and sweet spot percentages throughout his career, but the numbers have never been the same.

The first half of 2023 was filled with the same disappointment as the last few years. By the time the Midsummer Classic rolled around, Kepler was slashing .207/.279/.409. After starting the season at the top of the Twins’ lineup, Kepler had moved down to the back half. The silver lining for fantasy managers was the power as Kepler still hit 12 home runs during the first half of the season. Still, it was difficult for fantasy managers to stick with him.

The Second Half

For those looking, there was plenty of reason to remain optimistic. Kepler was still posting the same excellent barrel rates and exit velocity numbers that fantasy managers have grown accustomed to seeing. The most obvious issue was a .213 BABIP. High pull rates have caused Kepler to run below-average BABIPs throughout his career, but he had never posted a BABIP below .225. In theory, his BABIP should have benefited even more from the shift ban and that is exactly what happened during the second half.

Kepler was nothing short of excellent in the second half. His poor BABIP luck turned around and helped fuel a .306/.377/.549 slash line. The improvements to his average did not come at the expense of any of his power though as his ISO improved to .243 and he crushed another 12 home runs during the second half. Kepler posted an average exit velocity of over 92 mph and his barrel rate got even better.

Early in his career, Kepler was known for punishing fastballs. Back in 2019, Kepler hit .270 and slugged .543 off the heater. Last year, he hit just .240 and slugged .337. This year, Kepler got back to doing what he did best; crushing fastballs. This was especially true in the second half:

Max Kepler PLV

Most hitters in baseball struggle to execute on breaking pitches. When a pitcher like Spencer Strider locates a perfect slider down and away, there is very little a hitter can do. Hitters have more control over their ability to hit fastballs. When a batter is going well, he is crushing fastballs. That is exactly what Kepler did during the second half of 2023.

How to Draft Kepler Moving Forward

Kepler feels like he has been around the league for forever. Turns out, he is only going to be 31 next season and is coming off statistically the best season of his career. He has enticed fantasy managers with his underlying metrics for the past few seasons and now that he finally came through, it feels as if nobody is paying attention. His draft price is OF64. Yes, you read that correctly, OF64. Kepler is being drafted after players like Jack Suwinski, Gavin Lux, and Whit Merrifield. During the second half last season, Kepler ranked seventh amongst outfielders in runs scored, 15th in RBIs, ninth in average, and 13th in home runs.

Will Kepler be as good as he was during the second half last season? Probably not. However, he is still a talented player who can provide four-category production for your fantasy teams. His value rises even higher in daily leagues where you can remove him from your lineup against left-handed pitching. Kepler is not the flashiest player you can draft, but there is a good chance he is going to make your fantasy team better.

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