Fantasy Baseball: Hitters To Start/Sit Down The Stretch
I just checked my calendar, and it’s the end of August, which means one thing: the fantasy baseball playoffs are right around the corner! If you’re lucky enough to be in the playoff hunt, it’s time to start looking at the big picture. Which players can you rely on to help you win the championship? Which might be “fool’s gold” based on their ability to contribute to you reaching your ultimate aspirations? That’s what we’ll break down today.
As we discussed recently, this has been a very difficult season for pitchers from a health perspective. However, hitters have also suffered with more soft-tissue injuries than ever. As such, fantasy baseball managers have constantly had to be on the search for stopgap hitters; I’ve noticed a significantly greater emphasis on streaming hitters than ever. Right now, these six hitters would appear on the fringe between starting and sitting in September. Yet, in my opinion, there’s a clear place for them on that start/sit bubble. Which three hitters should you start, and who should you avoid? Let’s dive right into it!
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Hitters To Start/Sit
Start: C/OF Daulton Varsho, Arizona Diamondbacks
A player who plays catcher AND outfield? In this era? That’s right; Daulton Varsho is quite the unicorn. Generally, you want unicorns on your fantasy team.
Varsho is not only a unicorn, but a productive unicorn. I’ll lay the case for him as simple as this:
- Need batting average? Varsho may not help you there, but he won’t hurt you with a .244 projected batting average by THE BAT X.
- Need power? Varsho has a 12.2% barrel rate in the month of August and a 9.3% barrel rate overall.
- Need speed? Varsho provides some value there with 4 steals in 66 games.
- Need OBP? Varsho currently has a 12.9% walk rate.
- Need positional versatility? Well, we’ve already covered that.
Then, there’s this:
A young player taking time to adjust to the MLB level? That would appear to be quite common. Varsho’s steep swing helps him hit for power, while his even sprays, contact skills (23.7% whiff), and speed allow him to not be a liability when it comes to batting average. His early success (131 wRC+ in 58 PA) vs. lefties should allow him to continue to see everyday playing time in Arizona, a role he’s mostly seen since the trade of Stephen Vogt.
The best part about Varsho? He has catcher positional eligibility, yet doesn’t catch every day. Thus, he could get more playing time than the average streamer at the position, while he won’t go through the general wear and tear of the position. Several catchers are likely to see their offensive performance suffer during the dogs of the season, yet that won’t be the case with Varsho; he came up later in the year and is a part-time player at the position.
There’s truly no need to overthink this. Varsho helps you in almost every category, has elite positional value, and is now playing every day. What are you waiting for? See, there’s a reason to watch the Diamondbacks! I could go on a side tangent about how they randomly have a lot of interesting players (Ketel Marte obviously, Josh Rojas, Pavin Smith, Zac Gallen) worth watching, though I’ll stop before you miss out on the chance to insert Varsho into your starting lineup.
Sit: 2B Adam Frazier, San Diego Padres
The starting second baseman in the All-Star game who has a batting average over .300 right now? Why would you want to sit him? Remember, we’re not worried about what players have done in the past. Rather, we should focus on what they’ll do in the future. In that lens, Adam Frazier is someone I’d be wary of down the stretch.
Through the month of June, Frazier was a fantastic offensive producer. With a 135 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) and .326 batting average, he was an easy plug and play into your starting lineups. That being said, there were still clear warning signs. His .361 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was always on the high end, and with him so reliant on batting average, that was always going to be problematic. The hope was that his luck wouldn’t catch up to him until next season, but…..
Sigh, it looks like it caught up to him. In the month of August, for perspective, Frazier’s BABIP is down to .286. His projected batting average by THE BAT X is a mere .263, and with him not providing any power, his value is extremely diminished. Frazier has yet to produce a barrel since the start of July, while he’s projected for just one more stolen base the rest of the year; he needs to hit for average to be an impact producer.
Then, there’s the trade that brought him to the Padres. All of a sudden, Frazier went from hitting leadoff in Pittsburgh to the bottom of the lineup in San Diego. Heck, he’s recently not even been an everyday player for them. Thus, his ability to accumulate runs scored, stolen bases, and other volume statistics decreases greatly. Frazier was a very fun story early in the season, but, sadly, all good stories appear to come to an end. As a quality defender with tremendous contact skills, he’ll be a very useful utility player for the Padres through next year. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean he’s someone he should be in your lineup come playoff time.
Start: 2B/3B Abraham Toro, Seattle Mariners
When the Mariners traded their top reliever, Kendall Graveman, to the Astros, many were confused. Why would a team in the playoff hunt trade a key piece to a division rival? Yet, too much focus was placed on the player they traded, rather than the player they acquired.
In fact, Abraham Toro has boosted the Mariners’ short-term outlook significantly. For one of the least productive assets in the MLB, getting an infielder with on-base ability and power was critical for them, and that’s exactly what Toro has been for them. For the season, he currently boasts a 118 wRC+ and .337 weighted on-base average (wOBA), which would be tremendous for a second baseman moving forward.
Yet, season-long numbers don’t do Toro justice. Here are his numbers since being traded to the Mariners:
- 150 wRC+, .384 wOBA, .327/.405/.475, 10.1% barrel, 8.8% BB, 10.5% K
Toro’s plate discipline has been on full display, but this should be a surprise. Since the start of 2019, he had posted a 158 wRC+, 11.9% walk rate, and just a 15.5% strikeout rate in the minor leagues, and was a consistent performer there. This was always the main intrigue with him, and likely why general manager Jerry Dipoto was so adamant trading for him.
Why was Toro so affordable, though? It all stems from his lack of production before the trade. With Houston, Toro had a career 79 wRC+, 20.4% strikeout rate, and .278 on-base percentage, which obviously was underwhelming. However, keep in mind that he never was getting consistent playing time there, which can always have an impact on performance. It’s easy to buy into the idea that he just needed more assurance that he’d be in the lineup everyday to perform; baseball is 90% mental, after all!
In Seattle, Toro is doing a much better job not chasing pitches (25%) out of the zone, while he continues to make contact. Plus, the 10.4% barrel rate suggests more power to come; Seattle is a relatively neutral park for home runs. Most likely, you’re getting someone who will hit for average and power, while he’ll be in position for runs batted in hitting 5th in the lineup with a few stolen bases. At second base and third base, what are you waiting for? Projections are currently likely underrating him based on his struggles in Houston, but that’s well in the past. While that edge remains, now is the time to snatch him from the waiver wire. He’s only rostered in 20% of Yahoo leagues, and that needs to change instantly. Ride with the bull down the stretch.
Sit: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates
Disclaimer here; I love Ke’Bryan Hayes in dynasty leagues. Yet, this is focusing on redraft leagues in the postseason, and Hayes is still rostered in a strong majority of leagues. At such an offensive-heavy position, it might be time to move on.
As a well-regard prospect who dominated in 95 MLB plate appearances (195 wRC+) last year, Hayes received a lot of hype heading into 2021. Yet, he currently has just a 93 wRC+ and .308 wOBA, with just a .129 isolated power (ISO). If you’re buying into him down the stretch, it’s definitely on him coming into his own in September.
Raw power certainly is not Hayes’ problem. His 90.5 average exit velocity and 111 max exit velocity are both strong numbers and would suggest a player that should be hitting for power. Yet, raw abilities aren’t all that matters here. Despite that raw power, Hayes’ barrel rate sits at just 5% this year, which aligns much better with his power numbers. Why is it so low? The worst bugaboo of them all: ground balls.
Hayes’ 56.4% ground ball rate is absurdly high, as is his 44.4% of “topped” balls. This was a slight concern when he was a prospect, yet, even then, his ground ball rate still never approach such a high total. We’d hope for that to change soon, but I’m skeptical of that happening.
As you can see, the 24-year-old’s’ ground ball rate has all stemmed from pitches down in the zone:
Plus, it looks like I’m not the only one to notice this. Here’s his average fastball pitch height seen per month:
Ignore April, where he saw just 22 fastballs before going down with an injury. Nevertheless, there appears to be a clear reason behind the 2.34 ft average pitch height in August. Hayes’ ground ball rate against fastballs sits at 64.7%, and pitchers are giving him over 60% of fastballs this year. In a division with strong infield defense (Brewers, Cardinals), this is a major issue.
We can hope for a swing change from Hayes, but that’s unlikely to happen this year. If he comes at a discounted price in redraft, or his value lessens in dynasty leagues, you should certainly target him there. That being said, you cannot afford to be patient with him if you’re pushing for a first-place finish this season. The days with Hayes may be coming to an end for competitive fantasy baseball teams.
Start: 1B/OF Connor Joe, Colorado Rockies
Remember when Connor Joe was the opening day left fielder for the Giants, and responded with a negative 47 wRC+ before being let go after 16 plate appearances? Wow, San Francisco has come a long way since then. So has Joe, who has gone from an unknown to a player you must target in your fantasy baseball leagues.
Although Joe struggled with the Giants, he’s quietly always been a minor-league performer. Since the start of 2018, he had posted 143 wRC+, .416 on-base percentage, .230 ISO, and great plate discipline (14.9% walk rate). Meanwhile, in Triple-A this year, he was running a 151 wRC+, .344 ISO, and .430 wOBA; he just consistently produces.
The Rockies aren’t exactly loaded with talented position players, allowing Joe to get a chance to play. How has he fared? Oh, just a 122 wRC+, .208 ISO, and .376 on-base percentage. Not too bad for an unknown commodity!
As we did with Varsho, let’s break down Joe from each category:
- He currently has a .292 batting average, and his high BABIP should sustain playing in Colorado.
- He is hitting for power with that .208 ISO and 10.8% barrel
- He is scoring runs hitting leadoff for the Rockies
- He has multi-position flexibility
If you take away the name, that looks like a high-end fantasy contributor! Since August 8, Joe has been an everyday player for the Rockies. In that span, he has a 146 wRC+, .414 wOBA, and .305 ISO, and he’s performed at an elite level with just a .293 BABIP. What are we doing here? It’s a good player hitting leadoff for the Rockies who can be interred in at multiple position slots. He’s rostered in less than 20% of leagues. Why? I don’t have the answer to that.
We can fix that, though. I hereby declare the start of the “add Connor Joe to your lineup” campaign. As a member of it, you’ll be in great shape when it comes to boosting your offensive categories down the stretch. Don’t think twice; this isn’t your average Joe.
Sit: Joey Wendle, Tampa Bay Rays
I love uniqueness, so I’m definitely a fan of Joey Wendle. No batting gloves, a crouched stance, it’s all there with the 29-year-old! Of course, a player like this is on the Rays! More of this, please.
Sadly, although Wendle is fun to watch, he might not be someone you want on your fantasy team down the stretch. Yet, this hasn’t always been the case. Over the first two months of the season, he posted a 137 wRC+ and .216 ISO, proving value in all categories. Was this a sign of things to come? Well…
Oops. With a .344 BABIP and 13.6% home run/fly ball (high for a 5.3% barrel), there were always signs that Wendle was likely to regress. Since then, his 3.1% home run/fly ball rate aligns with that belief, but it’s not batted-ball luck that has changed for Wendle. Rather, he has just performed worse. His strikeout rate is up to 25% and his barrel rate is down to 2.8%, while his BABIP has remained (.329) near where it was before.
At the moment, Wendle is mainly a platoon player for the Rays. He’s another player who struggles to perform in Tampa (53 wRC+), so it’s less than ideal that the team has a ten-game home stretch between September 16 and 26. If you’ve kept him on your roster up to this point, there’s a great chance he’s been hindering your ability to move up the ladder in offensive categories. Before he continues to do so, say “nay” to this Ray.
Oftentimes, we get too caught up with what a player has done in the past, and not what they’ll do in the future. Thus an edge is created. Should you be able to overcome this bias, you’ll be in a great position to make a championship run down the stretch. With that in mind, it’s clear what side of the start/sit bubble these players are on. Will it work out for you? Only time will tell, but all we can control is our process, and hope it leads to results. With good process, I wish you the best of luck in aiming for that first-place finish!
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