HITS LIKE MAYS, RUNS LIKE HAYES?
Ke'Bryan Hayes (3B-PIT) showed that he could play defense in the minors, but there were concerns about his bat entering last season. Well, he eased those to some degree with a MLB debut in which he batted .376 with 5 homers, and 11 RBI across 95 PA. The now 24 year-old has flown up preseason 3B rankings as he clearly held his own and then some at the dish, with a 9.5% walk rate and 21% strikeout rate attesting to his MLB-readiness. He finished his cup of coffee with an 84% contact rate and 45% hard-hit rate, which certainly helps to generate optimism regarding what he can do in 2021.
And we expect Hayes to deliver something in the neighborhood of a top-10 season for 3B in fantasy this year. His ability to hit for average and some power while also swiping a few bags (he stole 12 in 508 Double-A PA in 2018 and another dozen in 480 Triple-A PA in 2019) should quickly install him in the center of an otherwise meh Pittsburgh lineup. Hayes' patience and the lack of talent around him will likely mean that he draws a lot of walks, but when he does get a chance to put the bat on the ball, he should do some damage. We have him projected for an average of about .280, a dinger total in the mid-20s, and 10 stolen bases.
MEA CULPA, MORAN
Colin Moran (3B-PIT) proved me wrong in 2020, as I wasn't high on him during the preseason. He ended up leading the Pirates in batting average, OBP, homers, RBI, and runs scored. Okay, maybe that's not saying much as he finished with a .247 average, .326 OBP, 10 homers, 23 RBI, and 28 runs scored across his 200 plate appearances while playing for an awful team. Ke'Bryan Hayes' strong debut might have casted doubt on Moran's ability to continue playing regularly and producing in 2021, but the departure of Josh Bell means that Moran will move across the diamond from 3B to 1B. But will he be a fantasy asset?
Moran made some positive steps forward in the limited 2020 campaign, even if the overall numbers aren't exactly impressive. He posted a career-best 40% hard-hit rate and a career-high .225 ISO while logging career bests in average exit velocity (92mph) and barrel rate (13.4%). And Moran showed increased patience at the dish that led to a career-high 9.5% walk rate. His .291 BABIP came in below his .321 career mark, which suppressed his average a bit. Concerningly, his groundball rate was up to a career-high 56%, and his 12.5% swinging-strike rate (which contributed to a career-worst 26% strikeout rate) was also a career high. Moran's 28% HR/FB also seems high and due for some regression. Overall, color me slightly optimistic that the former first-round draft pick can be a back-up 1B or corner infield-type guy in 2021. We have him projected for a boring but potentially useful .270/20/70 line.
COOL IT ON KELLER
Mitch Keller (SP-PIT) had a bizarre 2020 campaign to say the least. Yes, I realize that pretty much everyone's 2020 was at least weird, but Keller's baseball season was just odd. I was aboard the Keller hype train entering the season, as the peripherals from his 48-inning debut in 2019 suggested that he could be a fantasy asset. But then he struggled mightily with his control and missed a significant chunk of the campaign because of an oblique injury. Keller was only able to make five starts in 2020 - two before he sustained the injury and three after - in which he compiled a 2.91 ERA and 1.25 WHIP that came with a 6.7 K/9, 7.5 BB/9, and 6.57 xFIP. Yikes. He kept the ERA and WHIP low by allowing very few hits (opposing batters had a .104 BABIP against him) and stranding 94% of the men he put on base.
Understandably, I'm a bit more hesitant to add Keller to my roster to start the season than I was last year. Sure, the oblique injury derailed his season but he wasn't exactly impressive before sustaining it and he was a hot mess in general, as his ability to miss bats evaporated (7% swinging strike rate, down from 12% in 2019) while he just couldn't find the plate. And when Keller did, opposing batters made card contact at a 42% clip. Again, yikes. I still think he can at least become a mid-rotation type for fantasy, but his abbreviated 2020 campaign likely means that he will experience more growing pains in 2021 as he settles into the bigs. We have him down for an ERA in the mid-4s, a WHIP about 1.3 or so, and about a K per inning. I view him as someone you may want to add to your roster if your league allows some depth and flexibility to carry a speculative add. Otherwise, he's a watch list add. If things look like they are starting to click - and they could - make the add, because he does have potential.
SAME OLD MARTE
Starling Marte (OF-MIA) will play his age-32 season in Miami, where he spent roughly half of the abbreviated 2020 campaign. He was productive across his 250 PA split between Miami and Arizona last season, as he batted .281 with 6 long balls, 27 RBI, 36 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases. In many ways, Marte was largely his usual self, as he finished with a 109 wRC+ (116 career), 5% walk rate (5% career), 16% strikeout rate (20% career), and .149 ISO (.164 ISO). But there are some concerning peripherals, such as the second-lowest hard-hit rate of his career (29.8%), a diminished line-drive rate of 19% (21% career), and a career-low average exit velocity of 87mph.
How do we feel about Marte heading into the 2021 campaign? We have him as roughly our number 30 OF, largely because of his proven ability to post a 20-20 season. Marte's speed will inevitably tail off as he pushes deeper into his 30s, but he showed last season that he still possesses nice wheels, and his modest ability to put the ball over the fence while hitting for a solid average makes him a good 2nd or 3rd OF in most leagues. He's a little less valuable in leagues that count OBP because of his allergy to walks, but he should be a quality five-category type in general (expect a .270 average, 20 homers, and 20 steals and you should get about that barring a significant injury).
Jesus Aguilar (1B-MIA) was one of my favorite rebound candidates entering the 2020 campaign and he delivered, posting a .277 average, 8 long balls, 31 RBI, and 34 runs scored across 216 plate appearances. In doing so, he maintained a high walk rate (11%), slashed his strikeout rate to a career low of just under 19% (25% career), posted a career-high 26% line-drive rate, and repeated his career-average exit velocity of 90mph. Concerningly, his hard-hit rate was a career-low 37% per Statcast and his HR/FB remained under 14% for the second straight season, suggesting that the 22.5% and 24% clips that he logged in 2017 and 2018, respectively, in Milwaukee may not be repeated.
Do I think he's useful for fantasy in 2021? I'd probably put him in about the same tier as a Colin Moran, if not slightly higher because of his greater power potential. We project Aguilar for an average in the .260s to go along with a homer total in the mid-20s. Perhaps it was an adjustment to spacious Marlins Park, but he seemed to emphasize contact en route to recording career-best 80% contact and 9.5% swinging-strike rates last year. Tempered expectations in terms of power output relegates Aguilar to the ranks of back-up 1B and corner infield-types for fantasy purposes.
PABLO IS LEGIT... AT HOME
Pablo Lopez (SP-MIA) was among the players who proved me wrong last season, as I wasn't optimistic about his potential to be much of a fantasy producer. Well, he proceeded to log a 3.61 ERA, 9.3 K/.9, and 2.8 BB/9 across 11 starts (57.1 IP). His 3.73 xFIP indicates that his numbers pretty much reflected his performance, as he raised his strikeout rate considerably (7.7 in 2019) while limiting hard contact to a modest 32% per Statcast. Opposing batters posted a career-high 52% groundball rate against Lopez even as he elevated his swinging-strike rate to a career-best 12% clip.
We like but do not love Lopez for 2021, as we have him projected for an ERA of about 4 and a K/9 closer to 8. Part of the issue is his road woes, as he logged a 2.56 ERA in five starts at home last season but a 4.91 ERA in six away games. While he whiffed about the same rate both home and away, on the road his walk rate ballooned, as he issued 14 free passes in just 25.2 IP. Similarly, in 2019 he logged a 3.39 ERA at home and a 7.36 ERA on the road - hits, not walks, were the culprit that season. At any rate, we have Lopez valued as a back-end guy, partly because you should really only feel comfortable starting him at home if you roster him.
Austin Nola (C-SD) put together a useful 2020 campaign for a backstop, as he batted .273 with 7 longballs and 28 RBI across 184 PA split between the Mariners and Padres. The late bloomer (he's now 31 and only made his MLB debut in 2019) very much held his own at the dish, drawing walks at a 10% clip while fanning at a reasonable 19% rate and posting an 84% contact rate. Nola logged a quality 43% hard-hit rate per Statcast and recorded an average exit velocity of 90mph while stroking a 23% line-drive rate and posting a healthy 37% flyball rate for a guy who made plenty of hard contact. Since he should see plenty of starts in San Diego, we like him as a fringe top-10 C for fantasy, with projections that include an average in the .260s and about 20 homers. Bear in mind, though, that he'll likely hit lower in the order in San Diego than he did in Seattle, so he will likely not pile up runs and RBI.
Jonathan Villar (2B/SS-NYM) moved to New York during the offseason. Unfortunately, he'll be playing in the larger of the city's two fields. Given the 29 year-old's .232 average, 2 homers, and 15 RBI over 207 PA in a season split between Miami and Toronto, he might be easy to overlook as you prepare for 2021 drafts. After all, that 66 wRC+ is brutal. But then there are his 16 stolen bases in a day and age where speed is relatively scarce. So we have to consider him. Villar's .313 BABIP was significantly down from his .340 average, which helps to explain the low average. And while his hard-hit rate was down to just 26%, his 60% groundball rate was 5% above his career norm. Villar has always struck out a good bit (27%), so his 26% clip last season was expected. Encouragingly, his walk rate ticked northward for the third straight season, ending up at a shade over 9%. If your roster could use some speed in the middle infield and you are willing to bank on Villar's average moving back toward his .259 career clip, he's worth a look in the later rounds of a draft. We have him down for a .256 average, 13 longballs, and 38 stolen bases in 2021. Not bad for a guy who will be largely forgotten on draft day.
Eugenio Suarez (3B-CIN) put together an interesting 2020 season in which he blasted 15 homers in just 231 PA but mustered just a .202 batting average. While his 29% strikeout rate was on par with the clip he posted in 2019, his BABIP dropped about 100 points from his career norm to just .214. Statcast shows that Suarez logged a 44% hard-hit rate that was the second-best of his career, but he was more flyball happy than ever before (47%) and laced the fewest liners (18%) of his career (22% career average). His barrel rate, moreover, was a career-best 14.4% while his 71% contact rate and 12.2% swinging-strike rate were both career worsts (76% and 10.4% career averages for those, respectively). All that said, we expect Suarez to rebound in the average department in 2021 to produce a top 5ish fantasy season for a 3B, with an average of about .260 to go along with 40 or so big flies and about 100 RBI. He's a proven slugger at this point with a .260 career batting average. Draft him with confidence.
J.D. Davis (3B/OF-NYM) put together an unspectacular 2020 campaign after many thought he was primed for a breakout following an encouraging 2019 season. Across 229 PA in 2020, he batted .247 with 6 homers, 19 RBI, and 26 runs scored while logging a 116 wRC+. While his strikeout rate climbed a little to almost 25%, Davis drew walks at a healthy 13.5% clip while recording a hard-hit rate of 45% per Statcast. However, his groundball rate jumped to 56%, and last I checked not many grounders end up clearing the outfield fence. We like him to lower his groundball rate back toward the 47% rate that he posted back in 2019 and, in the process, loft a few more balls out of the park. We have Davis down for a solid 2021 campaign: a .270ish average, 20 or so dingers, and 80+ RBI.
Kyle Lewis (OF-SEA) followed up his encouraging 2019 debut with a 2020 campaign during which he made some strides. Across 242 PA, he batted .262 with 11 homers, 28 RBI, and 37 runs scored while chipping in 5 stolen bases. The 25 year-old slashed his ugly 39% strikeout rate to a more manageable 29% clip while elevating his walk rate from just 4% to 14% (he does have a track record of patience at the dish from his minor-league days). His wRC+ finished at a solid 126 as Lewis raised his contact rate slightly to 66% (was 63% in 2019) while trimming his swinging-strike rate from almost 18% to just under 15%. Interestingly, his hard-hit rate finished at only 34% per Statcast, although he did elevate his line-drive rate to just over 20% (was 14% in 2019) and kept his flyball rate at a healthy but not obscene 37% for a slugger. It's worth noting that he started the season off hot (.368 average, 7 longballs, and 19 RBI through his first 125 PA) before cooling down the stretch (.150 average, 4 dingers, and 9 RBI) as his strikeout rate soared and his flyball rate climbed in what could have been an effort to hit for more power. It remains to be seen what Lewis can do over a season of 500+ PA in the majors, and his performance to date in the bigs has been inconsistent. We have him down for an average about .240, a homer total in the low-to-mid 20s, and about 10 stolen bases. So, I wouldn't blame you added him to round out your roster. But I wouldn't advise that you reach for him.
Eddie Rosario (OF-CLE) moved within the division from Minnesota to Cleveland this off-season after the Twins saw it necessary to move on from a career .277 hitter with proven 30-homer talent. I guess the Twins are that confident that Alex Kirilloff is ready for a regular MLB role. At any rate, the Cleveland team inherits a guy who batted .257 with 13 homers and 42 RBI while swiping 3 bags in 231 PA last season. That came on the heels of Rosario's breakout 2019 campaign in which he batted .276 with 32 dingers and 109 RBI across 590 PA. Yep, that's a guy you don't want to keep around on the cheap, Minnesota. Although a career-worst .248 BABIP suppressed his average in 2020 (his career average BABIP is .305), Rosario nearly doubled up his career walk rate by taking free passes at an 8% clip and posted a strikeout rate just under 15% for the second straight year. Statcast shows his hard-hit rate was just 35%, but he's been pretty productive for a guy with a 33% career hard-hit rate. A guy who makes plenty of contact, has some pop, is showing more patience at the dish, and is taking his talents to a park that he LOVES to hit at? Sign me up for Rosario as a solid OF2. We have him projected as roughly the #25 overall OF, slated for an average of about .270 to go along with 30ish big flies.
Walker Buehler (SP-LAD) made only 8 starts in 2020 because of a blister issue, but he was legit in his 36.2 IP, as he logged a 3.44 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, and 2.7 BB/9 en route to making a case for himself to be viewed as the Dodgers' new ace. Buehler's 3.93 xFIP points to a .198 BABIP suppressing his ERA, but his strand rate was also a touch low at 69%. The control issues that led to a career-high BB/9 can likely be attributed to some degree to his persistent blister problems, and perhaps the same can be said for his uncharacteristically high 1.72 HR/9 (he logged a 0.79 and 0.99 the previous two seasons, respectively). Buehler's swinging-strike rate continued to climb upwards (a career-best 12.3% last year) while Statcast shows that opposing batters mustered a 37% hard-hit rate against him that was very close to what they posted in 2019. We view Buehler as a top-5 SP for fantasy with projections for an ERA just over 3, a WHIP about 1.05, and a K/9 north of 10. If you make a habit of drafting aces, he should be considered.
Frankie Montas (SP-OAK) had a brutal 2020 season. On the heels of a seeming breakout in 2019 (2.63 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, and 3.47 xFIP), I was pretty high on Montas' combination of heat and a devastating splitter entering the 2020 campaign. But he went on to post a 5.60 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, and 3.9 BB/9. His 4.36 xFIP indicates that he endured some poor luck, but his control left him and he was very prone to the longball (1.7 HR/9, up from just 0.75 in 2019) as opposing batters doubled up their barrel rate against him to 8% (just 4% in 2019). Montas did record a higher percentage of punchouts, partly because he ticked his swinging-strike rate closer to 12%. Also encouragingly, Statcast shows that opposing batters logged an identical 35% hard-hit rate against him in 2019 and 2020. The key, it seems, will be twofold: regaining the control he showed in 2019 and moving his groundball rate back toward the 49% clip he posted in 2019 (that dipped to just 37% last season). We think he puts together a 2021 campaign somewhere in between his excellent 2019 and awful 2020: think an ERA in the mid-4s, a WHIP about 1.3, and a K/9 about 9. He's a #4ish SP for fantasy purposes.
Ian Anderson (SP-ATL) put together a quality MLB debut in 2020 at just 21 years of age. In 6 starts, the righty posted a 1.95 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, and 3.9 BB/9 across 32.1 IP. The BB/9 obviously jumps out as an issue, as does his 4.5% HR/FB which factors into a 3.45 xFIP. His 12% swinging-strike rate was solid and he did limit hard contact to a 32% per Statcast, with a 53% groundball rate helping to erase some of those free passes via the double play. While it would be folly to expect Anderson to replicate an ERA under 2 in his first full MLB season, we do expect him to be a useful starter for fantasy purposes. We have him projected for an era just under 4, a WHIP around 1.3, and a K/9 in the neighborhood of 9.5 in 2021. Montas should be a solid #3 or #4 starter for fantasy potential for more.
Chris Paddack (SP-SD) regressed a bit in 2020 after putting together a stellar rookie season in 2019 (3.33 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, and 2 BB/9 over 140.2 IP), as he finished with a 4.73 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, and 1.8 BB/9 across 12 starts (59 IP) in the year of COVID. His 3.77 xFIP, however, came in under that from 2019 (4.05), which most obviously points to an inflated 25% HR/FB being a problem. Opposing batters teed off on Paddack's 94-mph heater in particular, as that went from a plus to minus pitch. Encouragingly, his already-great changeup got even better. Moreover, he did a better job of inducing groundballs (47%, up from 40%). But across the board hitters tended to punish batted balls, logging a 47% hard-hit rate, 11% barrel rate, and 91-mph average exit velocity per Statcast. Commanding the fastball will be the key to Paddack taking a step forward, and we think he can do it. We have him slated as a #2 fantasy starter in 2021, with projections for an ERA about 3.70, a WHIP near 1.1, and a K/9 near 9. He should be about the 20th-25th SP taken in "snake" drafts.