Fire & Ice: Kolby Allard & Byron Buxton
As the season winds down, I’m gonna switch things up just a tad this week. We have a typical Fire asset this week in Kolby Allard, but in the Ice department, we find Byron Buxton. He has barely played over the course of the second half, but that’s just the problem. His continued injury troubles have muted what should have been his breakout season. It’s a more macro look at a player than I typically write here, but worth a look nevertheless.
Fire – Kolby Allard
This time last year, you couldn’t have found someone lower on Kolby Allard than me. Turning the clock back to 2015, however, I liked him just fine. As the 14th overall draft pick that year, he was a highly regarded prospect. He put up strong numbers until he moved up to Double-A when the strikeout rate waned. His fastball, which was never his strongest pitch, was getting clocked in the upper-80’s. When he finally debuted with the Braves in 2018, it was discouraging, to say the least. It was just eight innings, but he walked four batters, allowed as many homers as he had strikeouts (3), and yielded 12 runs. Mix in an 89 MPH fastball, and I couldn’t even see a career as a middle reliever.
Perhaps the most important part of being a strong fantasy player is being open-minded. More and more these days, we are seeing swing changes. We are also seeing pitching philosophies change all the time. We are seeing a lot fewer sinkers across the league, along with increased slider usage, for example. Players are making adjustments constantly, and if we don’t keep up, we get left in the dust. Heck, that’s a large part of why I do this series.
Well, Kolby Allard is changing. He came up this year pumping 92.6 MPH on his fastball, up over three miles per hour from last year. That sort of velocity jump is almost as rare as I like my steak. On top of that, he introduced a new pitch! If that combination doesn’t open your mind to the possibility of Allard being a brand new pitcher, I don’t know what to tell you. Coming in at 88 MPH, his new cutter nets 11.6% whiffs with a .245 BAA. He’s been using it mostly in lieu of his curveball, which is a less effective offering.
That is most of the good news. The bad news is that Allard really struggles to miss bats. He gets very little spin on his curveball and has a meager 11.6% whiff rate with the pitch. While his changeup has just a .105 BAA, it also has an extremely low 4.6% whiff rate. Its current wOBA is an excellent .122, but its xwOBA expects trouble at .325. With just an overall 8.5% swinging-strike rate and 28.2% reach rate on his arsenal, we’re looking at a pitcher who will need pinpoint control to maintain even a league-average strikeout rate.
He also has some regression coming in the home run department. He has an 0.27 HR/9 over these first 33.1 innings. If you normalize his 3.6% HR/FB rate along with some other peripherals, you get a 4.22 xFIP that looks less enticing than his 3.78 ERA or (especially) his 2.94 FIP. He is just 22, however, so time is on his side. He won’t be squeezed for a rotation spot now that he’s out of Atlanta, so if he struggles, the Rangers are more apt to let him work through things. Even with these positive changes, it’s hard to see Allard as more than a back-end fantasy option due to a low strikeout ceiling.
Ice – Byron Buxton
As I touched on in the intro, this is a bit of a different angle than I normally take in this article. Byron Buxton has played just nine games over the second half, recently appearing as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for the Twins. He hasn’t taken an actual at-bat since August 1 thanks to a nagging shoulder injury. Word came down recently that he is unlikely to take another swing this season due to a setback.
That’s unfortunate news for both Buxton and the Twins, but unfortunately, it has become what is expected from Buxton. Since his debut in 2015, Buxton has played 46, 92, 140, 28, and now 87 games across five seasons. He is the best defensive outfielder in the game, but part of that elite defensive skillset includes playing with reckless abandon. He is constantly running full-tilt into the outfield wall or diving to make catches, which opens him up for injury. At this point, it’s hard to imagine him changing that philosophy (or his instincts). Perhaps that will always make him injury-prone, and we have to bake that into his anticipated production in 2020.
It’s a shame, really, because 2019 was shaping up to be the big Buxton breakout. In about half a season, Buxton amassed 10 home runs and 14 stolen bases. When he initially went down with a wrist injury in June, he was leading baseball in doubles. Assuming he doesn’t hit again in 2019, he’ll finish with 30 doubles and four triples, good for a .513 SLG.
He has also finally curbed his high strikeout rate. He had chopped 6.7% from his 2018 K% of 29.8%, down to 23.1%. While his swinging strike and contact rates remained consistent, he made a career-high 76.4% contact on pitches in the strike zone. He punished those pitches with a career-best 35.4% hard contact rate. His 8.3% barrel rate was also easily a career-high as he made explosive gains in both exit velocity (+3.6 MPH) and launch angle (+6.8 degrees). Also, consider that he was playing through injury during his brief 2018 campaign, but his xwOBA on fastballs skyrocketed from .177 to .353. An eye-popping difference to be sure, but still, numbers to take with a grain of salt.
We can take most of these improvements seriously. Byron Buxton is also going to have elite speed in 2020, which has to put him on the redraft radar. You can’t draft him too early simply due to the injury risk and the plethora of solid hitters in today’s game. However, steals are hard to come by these days. He is going to be a high-upside power/speed target in the middle rounds who will surely find his way onto sleeper lists once again.
Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has had his work featured in numerous books and magazines. He has also appeared on many podcasts and radio shows and hosts the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts. His written work can be found exclusively at Fantrax HQ, and his personal thoughts and opinions can be found on Twitter @NathanDokken.
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