Never mind that we’re still waiting for Domingo Santana and Kole Calhoun to hit their second home runs or for Alex Wood to get his first win. A quarter of the season has already whizzed right past us. Is it time to admit that these players are in the first batch of fantasy baseball busts?
As some stats are starting to stabilize, it’s a good opportunity not only to size up our teams as a whole, but to check in on individual players. Back in February, I picked 10 players for my fantasy baseball busts list, and at this point, half of them are clearly falling short of many owners’ expectations.
I clearly whiffed on A.J. Pollock, as I did not foresee him taking his power game to a new level, even with the introduction of the humidor at Chase Field.
I also failed to predict Yoan Moncada’s massive uptick in power as well as the substantial increase in his line drive rate, both of which are enabling him to bat .263 despite his growing strikeout rate.
Those are trends I might have been able to pick up on if I had given greater weight to Moncada’s minor league stats. I’m not sure, however, how I could have known that Gio Gonzalez would be setting a career high in strikeout rate (25.9 percent after eight starts) at age 32 and matching his “unsustainable” 82 percent strand rate from last season.
So as of this point, there are predictions I got badly wrong, but was I necessarily right about the five players who appear to be true fantasy baseball busts? It’s worth taking a closer look. While each of these players appeared to be overrated on draft day, their underwhelming first quarter of the season could be setting them up to be great buy-low candidates.
Jose Quintana, SP, Cubs: My biggest reason for doubting Quintana’s value heading into this season was that I did not see him coming close to last season’s career-high 26 percent strikeout rate or the 19 percent called strike rate that supported it. Both rates have regressed toward their previous norms, but Quintana has been far worse than I envisioned in my most pessimistic moments. After Monday’s outing against the Braves, Quintana has a 5.23 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP. While he is failing to freeze batters at an above-average rate like he did last season, he is also having trouble getting batters to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. As a result, he has 21 walks in 41.1 innings.
Just prior to Monday’s outing, Quintana reeled off a three-start run in which he allowed only one earned run over 17 innings, but he walked seven batters. Even in his best stretch of the season to date, he could not generate a chase rate as high as 28 percent in any of this starts. (The major league average is 30 percent.) Once Quintana starts getting swings on bad pitches, he is worth trying to acquire at a discount. Until then, it’s best to stay away.
Marcell Ozuna, OF, Cardinals: Before the season started, I acknowledged that Ozuna did improve in one important way in 2017: he swung far more often at pitches in the strike zone. However, his gains in batting average and power and run production seemed out of proportion with the improvement one could expect from his sharpened batting eye.
Once again, the changes in Ozuna’s stats don’t match up with the changes in his peripheral numbers. His swing rate on pitches in the zone is up slightly, from 73 to 74 percent, but he is not seeing as many good pitches to hit. Still, the rate of pitches Ozuna gets in the zone has been falling slowly and steadily since his first full season in 2014. The most notable change is to his average exit velocity on flyballs and line drives, which has fallen from 96.4 mph last season to 94.5 mph so far in 2018.
I was expecting some power regression for Ozuna, and with less exit velocity, that seems like an even more reasonable outcome, but an .093 Iso — the same mark held by Alcides Escobar and Jose Peraza — seems like overkill. According to xStats.org, Ozuna should have a .276/.310/.437 slash line rather than his actual .265/.300/.358 marks. Owners trying to buy low on Ozuna will need him to hit with more power, but that’s not an unreasonable expectation given his recent track record.
Paul DeJong, SS, Cardinals: Ozuna’s teammate already has eight home runs, but his batting average of .262 is just low enough that he ranks only 16th in Roto value among shortstops (per ESPN’s Player Rater). Given that he was 10th in ADP, DeJong is not quite paying back what fantasy owners gave up to get him. It was his .285 batting average from last year that I was most wary of, but a 23-point drop can easily be overcome with three-fourths of the season left. As with Moncada, I did not fully take into account the possibility that DeJong would develop quickly as a hitter, but he appears to be doing just that. He is far more patient, swinging at 41 percent of the pitches he sees, as compared to 51 percent last year, and his exit velocity on flies and liners has jumped from 93.7 to 96.1 mph. He’s pulling the ball slightly less and hitting more line drives.
I doubted DeJong could come close to last year’s .349 BABIP, and if he hadn’t changed as a hitter, he probably couldn’t. This year, he is batting .341 on balls in play, and he just might be able to sustain it now. DeJong seems to be coming out of an early May funk, but if you can get him at any sort of discount from his perceived value on draft day, it’s time to make a trade.
Evan Gattis, C, Astros: My main concerns with Gattis were the drop in power he experienced last season and the potential for lost playing time on a crowded Astros roster. He has started 28 of 43 games (all at designated hitter), and that’s not bad for a catcher-eligible player. My concerns about Gattis’ drooping power numbers may have been well-founded, though. He has hit only three homers to date, although two of those came this past weekend. He is striking out at a career-high 28 percent rate, and his home run-to-flyball ratio of 10.0 percent is a career low, though close enough to last year’s 11.2 percent to be believable. If not for a 46.7 percent pull rate on flyballs — the highest rate in the majors (min. 25 flyballs) — he may have even fewer home runs. All three of Gattis’ homers have been pulled, and his 88.4 mph average exit velocity on flies and liners ranks 210th out of 220 batters with at least 70 batted balls.
Maybe Gattis can regain his prior power-hitting form, but until we see a more sustained run with consistent clout, he should be avoided.
Justin Smoak, 1B, Blue Jays: Last season’s increase in power and drop in strikeout rate appeared to be outliers when compared to Smoak’s first two seasons with Toronto, especially given that much of his improvement took place over a roughly two-month span. I was more willing to bet on the larger portion of his Blue Jays history, but in one regard, he is showing that last season was no fluke. Through his first 36 games, Smoak is striking out at a 24 percent rate, which is closer to last season’s 20 percent mark than his 30 percent rate from 2015 and 2016 combined.
It’s probably safe to assume that owners were more interested in the 38 homers Smoak blasted last season than his .270 batting average, and he has been disappointing as a power source so far. With five home runs to date, he is roughly on a 20-homer pace. Whereas he was averaging 334 feet on flyball distance a year ago, this year he has been averaging a paltry 306 feet.
Smoak was 13th in ADP among first basemen, but coming out of the season’s first quarter, he ranks 22nd in Roto value. Last year, he got hot in May, but there are no signs yet of a resurgence. As of now, it would be an upset if Smoak didn’t wind up as a substantial bust.
Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference. ESPN.com.