Jake Arrieta Returns to the Cubs:
Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish have been linked together in many Cubs fans' minds since Arrieta departed and Darvish arrived before the 2018 season. For Darvish, he had nearly impossible shoes to fill, as Arrieta established himself as a fan favorite after winning the Cy Young in 2015 and leading the Cubs to their first World Series in 108 years during the 2016 campaign. As a result, it's rather fitting that he will take Darvish's spot in Chicago's rotation after Darvish was shipped to San Diego earlier this off-season. Unfortunately for the Cubs, Arrieta isn't quite on the same level as he was during his last tenure with the ballclub and certainly not at the same level that Darvish performed in 2020. Let's dig in. Arrieta's claim to fame during his Cy Young season in 2015 was with his lethal sinker/slider combination that helped him post swinging strike rates about 2% higher than league average, leading to a 27% strikeout rate and phenomenal 56% groundball rate. While his groundball tendencies remain, Arrieta has lost the effectiveness of those two pitches, battling inconsistency and even posting negative pitch values in some seasons during his three years in Philadelphia. Some hope a return to Chicago will help Arrieta rediscover himself, but it's important to remember the coaching staff has nearly completely turned over since Arrieta's last season in 2017 - including the Cubs firing Chris Bosio, the man who first helped unlock Arrieta's potential. The right-hander has long been lauded for his discipline around his training regimen, but at 34 years old, durability becomes a concern for any pitcher. If you're looking for areas of upside, Arrieta's 17.6% HR/FB rate in 2020 and 19.4% rate in 2019 indicate he has been a little unlucky since his hard hit rates allowed in both of those seasons came in below league average in both years. Overall, Arrieta was a good signing by Chicago for a team in need of a veteran presence in their rotation, but don't confuse that with value in fantasy. At this point in his career, he simply doesn't strike out enough batters to warrant the risk he will face with a questionable Cubs defense behind him and days when the wind is blowing out in Wrigley.
Battle for Second: David Bote vs Nico Hoerner:
Assuming Kris Bryant is still on the Cubs roster by opening day, one of the more intriguing position battles will be the starting second base position between fan favorite David Bote and young infield Nico Hoerner. Bote has served as a jack-of-all-trades for the Cubs over the last several seasons, filling in where necessary but rarely having a starting role of his own, yet making appearances at every position but catcher and centerfield. Bote slashed an uninspiring .200/.303/.408 over 45 games, but that line could easily be written off as small sample noise. His .228 BABIP wasn't just abnormally lower compared to his career levels (.307) - it simply just doesn't line up with his other quality of contact metrics. His 36% hard hit rate is in line with his career levels while his 10.5% barrel% was actually his career best. Additionally, his strikeout rate was 27% - consistent with his first two seasons - but he actually showed significant improvement in his SwStr% from 13.7% down to 10.5%, indicating his strikeout rate was artificially high in 2020. He also saw his contact rate rise to 73%, yet none of these improvements flowed into his results. As a result, over the course of a full season, it's reasonable to expect these underlying improvements to drive quality results. While he's the favorite for the job, Nico Hoerner was a much more well-rounded prospect both defensively and hit tool. Hoerner has always had an excellent plate approach, posting an impressive 0.86 batting EYE in the minors and carrying that his high contact approach to the majors, posting an 83% contact rate and just a 16.8% strikeout rate across the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Unfortunately, Hoerner lacks the speed needed to be a stolen base threat and his power is yet to develop. His career 2.2 launch angle is obviously a recipe for groundballs - 54% groundball rate and just a 23% flyball rate. Right now that's okay - his hard hit rate is just 29% - because he doesn't hit enough barrels to turn those flyballs into homeruns anyway (and by not enough barrels, he has literally posted just one in his career). Ultimately, the Cubs decision will likely come down to whether they're placing a priority on defense or a priority on offense and without a designated hitter this season, Hoerner is very likely to find himself on the short end of the playing time platoon.
Better Late Than Never: How A Converted Shortstop Might Be the Padres Answer at Catcher
By now, everyone knows the story of Fernando Tatis Jr. and his rise from international free agent to the face of baseball, but the lesser known story is Austin Nola's. Austin, the older brother to Phillies ace Aaron, started his career as a shortstop but was converted to a catcher while in the Marlins farm system. After getting released in 2018, the Mariners signed him and he carved out a role in 2019, batting a respectable .269/.342/.454 with 10 home run over 267 plate appearances. He continued his strong offensive performance in 2020 at age 30 before being acquired by the Padres at the trade deadline. He finished the shortened 2020 season with 7 HR and a slash line of .273/.353/.472. He's also advanced with his plate approach - 0.53 batting eye - and possesses strong framing skills that should help keep his bat in the lineup for the Padres. While all indications seem favorable for Nola, it's important to remember he has just 451 major league plate appearances and his career .316 BABIP is probably overstated based on his career 35% hard hit rate. The contact skills seem legit though, so even if the batting average regresses, his contact bat and skills behind the plate should be enough to keep him on the field and the great lineup around him should buoy his fantasy value.
The Dodgers Rotation is Stacked, but the Padres May Be Better if Paddack Bounces Back
Just a year ago, Chris Paddack was the opening day starter for San Diego. Fast forward to this year and Paddack is arguably the team's 4th starting pitcher behind Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Dinelson Lamet. The home run ball was the story of Chris Paddack's 2020 season - giving up 14 in just 12 starts for a HR/FB rate of 25%. So what happened? Variance! Regression! Small Sample! All the above! After managing to post a 3.33 ERA despite a 42% hard hit rate allowed and a 4.05 xFIP in 2019, Paddack actually improved his hard hit rate allowed to 37% in 2020 and increased his GB rate to 47%, yet his HR/FB rate rose and his ERA slipped to 4.73 - two stats that should have improved with the former two. His 3.77 xFIP in 2020 is proof that his correction swung too far the other way meaning his actual skillset probably lies somewhere between his 2019 statistics and his 2020 statistics. Even at that level - that might be enough to push the Padres rotation even with, or possibly ahead of, the Dodgers.
Will the Real Adalberto Mondesi Please Stand Up?
Adalberto Mondesi is now two years removed from his breakout 2018 season that vaulted him into consideration as a 3rd round pick in both 2019 and 2020 and after stealing a remarkable 24 bases in 59 games in 2020, he's now being drafted as the 24th overall player in NFBC formats. So the question has to be asked - is he worth it? Getting that level of stolen base production is both rare and an enormous advantage. The thing that fantasy owners need to figure out, however, is what level of power production can they count on from the shortstop? His hard% has dipped each of the last two seasons and with it, so has his HR/FB rate. His speed props up his BABIP - career .336 - but if his hard hit rate continues to fall, his BABIP and consequently his batting average could both be at risk. At 24th overall, one would have to bake in at least a slight bounceback in his hard hit rate to be able to justify his lack of power and potential batting average risk. But make no mistake, if his hard hit rate does bounceback and he can return his HR/FB rate to his 2018 levels, his elite speed can put him neck-to-neck with Trea Turner in the first round.
Is Jorge Soler A One-Hit Wonder?
Jorge Soler led the American League in home runs in 2019 with 48, but managed to hit just 8 in 2020. His batting average also fell to .228, his lowest mark since 2017 and he posted his highest strikeout rate of his career. Digging into his advanced metrics tells a bit of a different story, however. In 2020, Soler actually managed to post a barrel% higher than his rate in his massive 2019 campaign while maintaining the same 15.5 launch angle from the season before. So obviously, when he made contact he was hitting the ball hard, but his problems lie with his inability to always put the bat on the ball. In 2019, he improved his contact rate to 70%, up 5% from his career levels of 65%, but in 2020 he fell back to 65%. Interestingly, he chased less and posted the lowest swinging strike rate of his career (13%). The latter is interesting since his strikeout rate was 7% higher than career levels despite his improvement in swinging strikes. His batted ball mix changed slightly, reverting back to 50%+ pull rate, but all in all, the story of Jorge Soler seems to be one that's telling a story different from the actual results. For you, that means potential value on draft day. After all, how many batters can you draft with 40 homerun upside at 143rd overall, which is his current ADP in NFBC drafts this year.
Let's talk about strand rates, or sometimes referred to as left on-base% (LOB%). I wrote an in-depth piece covering this statistic last year at this link. If you're unfamiliar with the magic of strand rates, or simply want a refresher, I highly recommend checking out that column before reading on. If you're already familiar, below are a few of the more interesting pitchers that stand out when looking at strand rates over the closest sample we have to the previous 162 games - roughly June 13, 2019 through the entirety of the 2020 season.
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) - Clayton Kershaw has an ERA of 2.74 over his last 28 starts, which on the surface seems like it would indicate that he has managed to bounceback from his injury plagued 2018 season with ease. Unfortunately, lurking on the surface we see that he has done this on the coattails of an 83% strand rate. For Kershaw, his career strand rate is 79%. This is slightly concerning because in his prime he was able to support a higher LOB% (80%-87%) because he also had higher strikeout rates (31-34%) which were supported his SwSt% rates around 14-15%. Unfortunately, he has seen a pullback in those swinging strike metrics to 13% and his strikeout rate has dropped accordingly, meaning his ability to produce a high LOB% is probably equally impact. Accordingly, sequencing or timing of hits largely has been beneficial to Kershaw, causing his strand rate to increase, rather than an actual skill improvement back to his prime underlying numbers. Don't be mistaken - the difference isn't stark and he remains a very good starting pitching option in 2021, but it's important to factor is a little bit of regression when valuing him this year.
Jose Quintana (LA) - The Cubs let Jose Quintana walk after the 2020 season, allowing him to reunite with former manager Joe Maddon with the Angels. Quintana has struggled over his last 19 starts, posting a 5.28 ERA. Quintana's LOB% was just 63% over that range, one of the lowest metrics among all starting pitchers and 11% lower than his career average. With largely a similar strikeout rate, it's important to understand Quintana's profile as a starting pitcher. Q has always succeeded by inducing ground balls and limiting hard contact - but what happens when he doesn't limit hard contact? The answer - at least in part - seems to be a BABIP about 40 points higher than his career levels. Quintana has allowed a 42% hard hit rate over his last 19 starts compared with his career 31% levels. The key for left-hander moving forward will be improving the quality of contact allowed. Can he do it in 2021? Maybe a change of scenery with help, but in his case, this isn't just a matter of bad luck. He needs to make tangible adjustments in his age 32 season to bounceback to his previous performance levels.
German Marquez (COL) - Poor German Marquez has a career 72% strand rate - exceptionally low for a player with a career 11.5% swinging strike rate - but since he plays half his game in the most hitter friendly place in baseball, not even strikeouts can stop him from allowing baserunners to score. Over his last 26 starts, Marquez has a 64% LOB% and a 4.58 ERA. His supporters point to his 3.70 xFIP as a sign that he has pitched better than his ERA shows. While that might be true, Coors Field has caused his career delta between xFIP and ERA to be about 65 points. This is mostly because xFIP neutralizes a player's HR/FB rate to league average levels - something that simply can't be done for players in Coors field. With that said, his career ERA and FIP only have a 40 point delta and FIP does not neutralize HR/FB. If you're looking for upside, consider that Marquez still has elite strikeout ability with a 12% SwStr% and it's fair to reason that huis career 24% strikeout rate is a little understated based on his skills. Marquez might never been viewed as a safe option, but at 26 years old, there's still upside here.
Dylan Bundy (LA) - Dylan Bundy was one of the trendiest names heading in 2020 and he failed to disappoint. A look at this strand rate poses a fascinating question, however. His last 28 starts have resulted in a 69% LOB%, pretty close to being in line with his career 72.5% rate. This doesn't make sense since he's a pretty good strikeout pitcher (23% career) and showed even more growth recently. In fact, his 13% swinging strike rate over his last 28 starts is among the best across any starting pitcher. Bundy started to unlock higher strikeout numbers in the 2020 season and there's still room to grow at the rate he induces swing and misses and generates chasing of pitches out of the zone. Bundy's performance in 2020 absolutely is legit and he remains a candidate for continued growth in 2021 despite already breaking out last year.
Joe Musgrove (SD) - A longtime fantasy darling, Joe Musgrove is yet to really break out. Sure, we started to see the pendulum swing in his favor in 2020, but he's been one of the most unlucky pitchers in baseball throughout much of his career. This unluckiness can be seen in his strand rates - 69% in 2018 and 63% in 2019 - and finally in 2020 he saw the correction to 77% and the results were dramatic, which about a 60 point swing in his ERA. Despite that, there's still reason to see even more upside in Musgrove. New team aside (which should be a good thing getting out of Pittsburgh), Musgrove was actually pretty unlucky with his 17% HR/FB rate last year, especially when you consider his barrel percentage was just 5% and his hard hit rate allowed was an eye-popping 24%. This will regress and further move Musgrove's stats more favorable, but what's exciting is that he's actually showing tangible growth in other areas of his game, like improving his SwStr% to 14%. All this combined created the package of an extremely attractive starting pitching option in 2021.
Kenta Maeda (MIN) - In his first year in Minnestoa, Kenta Maeda proved to be the actual ace of the rotation. While is may be easy to write off Maeda's rise as small sample noise, his performance over his last 24 games suggest his 2020 was no fluke. In fact, over the larger sample, we see Maeda was a victim of bad sequencing - 72% strand rate despite a remarkable 16% swinging strike rate. Maeda's strong ability to control his quality of contact allowed (29% hard hit rate and 5% barrel rate) go a long way to help keep his BABIP low, while his ability to command the strike zone reduces unnecessary baserunners. Now that he's out of LA, the kid gloves can come off over the course of the entire season. Maeda averaged over 6IP in 2020, a pace which could give him 193 innings pitched over a full season with 32 starts.
Mike Fiers (OAK) - Mike Fiers should be feared, but maybe not in the way you might think. Despite posting an ERA of 3.78 over his last 29 starts, Fiers has largely done it with smoke and mirrors. His LOB% of 80% is at odds with his 76% career mark - especially when you factor in his steep decline in strikeout ability over the last few seasons. His 86% contact rate from 2020 is scary when factor in his 7.5% barrel rate allowed. Avoid him in his 35 year old season.
Eduardo Rodriguez (BOS) - E-Rod missed the entire 2020 season due to complications related to Covid-19, so it's easy to overlook him in the 2021 season. That's a mistake because E-Rod is one of the more appealing starters given his age and untapped upside, namely his combination of great quality of contact metrics (5.9% barrel %), above average SwStr% (11.7%), heavy groundball-inducing approach and deep repertoire. E-Rod had a tough start to the 2019 season, but his second half was strong and will look to regain his form as he bounces back from a missed season.
Zac Gallen (AZ) - Zac Gallen was a trendy pick heading into 2020, yet he still managed to provide value on top of his pre-draft inflation in 2020. The problem with Zac Gallen is that while he has legitimate tools, his actual performance in 2020 was aided, at least in part, by favorable luck. To be more specific, Gallen's 84% strand rate is going to be challenging to maintain even with his plus strikeout ability. In that same space, his .275 BABIP is pretty low, especially for a player giving up hard contact at around the league average rate. Working for him is an excellent 5.5% barrel rate, but be wary of paying full price for his 2020 performance since there will likely be a little regression on the horizon.
Dakota Hudson (STL) - Few players have realized the amount of success that Dakota Hudson has seen over his first 241 innings as a major leaguer. Hudson is a very heavy contact/groundball pitcher with very few strikeout, which works well for him in practice. The problem is that in addition to being a high contact, low strikeout pitcher, he's walking 12% of the batters he faces. That's a lot of baserunners, but thanks to his 78% strand rate, he has managed to come out relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, when you aren't striking out batters, you're relying on BABIP and your defense to bail you out. In Hudson's case, his BABIP is just .258, despite a hard hit rate allowed of 38.5% which is well above league average. As these batted ball samples grow larger, his BABIP will likely move closer to the league average mark around .300. With plenty of runners on base, more runners will score and his ratios will inflate. Hudson has been a great success story, but sometimes the best decision is knowing when to cash out before it's too late.