Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Fantasy Baseball: What matters in the early season, from closer shuffles to velocity readings to lineups

Spare a thought for your favorite Fantasy Baseball analyst, if you can, because this is the toughest time of the year for us. Games are happening and we just don’t know what to do about them. Or, more accurately, we know what we should do about them: Ignore them (mostly). 

And that’s a hard thing to do. We had to watch spring training games and mostly ignore them, too, because we know better than to overreact to the small sample size theater of Cactus and Grapefruit League action. But now we’re watching real games, with real major-league ballplayers, that really impact our Fantasy teams, and we have to remind ourselves not to react. And it’s our job to react!

But three or four days of games just isn’t enough time to really be making changes to how we view players or our teams. You don’t spend an entire offseason doing research only to throw it out over one series of games. 

Of course, you can’t just go into stasis early in the season. You still have to make roster moves and play the waiver wire. You just have to know how to watch early-season baseball as a Fantasy player. You have to know what to ignore and what to actually react to; you have to figure out what might matter and what probably doesn’t.

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So, as we get into the first full week of baseball action for the 2022 season, I’ve gone ahead and put together a list of things that I’ll be paying attention to early in the season, ranked in order of how likely I am to react to them: 

Closer shuffles

This is the most obviously actionable event for Fantasy players early in the season, mostly because of how many unsettled closer situations there are right now. There are at least a dozen teams where we really don’t know who the closer is and another five or so where a bad outing or two could legitimately shake up the hierarchy. The problem, of course, is that just because a pitcher got the first save opportunity doesn’t mean he’ll get the next, but you may not be able to wait for a guy to get two save opportunities in a row before someone adds them

For instance, Tony Santillan got the first save for the Reds, which came as a surprise as we had identified Art Warren as the likelier option. However, as Scott White has pointed out on FBT a few times, Santillan was warming up for a non-save situation, so he might have gotten the opportunity by default. To back that idea up, Warren got the next save opportunity in a more traditional spot – the Reds entered the ninth with a lead they knew they would be trying to hold on to. That doesn’t necessarily mean Warren is for sure the closer – and the looming return of Lucas Sims (my pick for the Reds best reliever) is an additional complication on top of that. 

Then there are the saves you can safely ignore, among which I would count Ty Blach‘s four-inning save against the Dodgers and Dominic Leone‘s more traditional save against the Marlins, both came on Sunday. Leone could be a viable option if the Giants give him a chance, but his save came with both Camilo Doval and Jake McGee likely unavailable after pitching the previous two games. Even then, he faced the bottom of the order after Tyler Rogers handled the 5-6-7 hitters for the Marlins the prior inning, so Leone likely still has some hurdles to clear. 

We still don’t have much clarity on a lot of those situations at this point, but I would say the opening weekend likely put Daniel Bard, Tanner Rainey, and Warren in the driver’s seat for their respective situations, and I made some speculative adds on the likes of David Robertson, Diego Castillo (the Mariners reliever, not the Pirates infielder, because we have to draw that distinction now), Jake Diekman and David Bednar this weekend as well. 

Velocity increases

Why do I think velocity increases are more actionable than velocity decreases? I think it’s probably because there just isn’t much about someone throwing harder that would appear to be flukey, whereas there are some reasons for a pitcher’s velocity being down that wouldn’t necessarily be a reason for concern. Whereas an increase in velocity is almost always a good thing – though not necessarily something that should or will change my perception of a player. 

Here are the pitchers who added at least 1.5 mph to their average fastball velocity from the first weekend of action among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2021:

Rodon and Ohtani are pretty good no matter how hard they throw, but in Rodon’s case especially, it was incredibly promising to see him dialing it up like that after shoulder concerns scared off many would-be suitors. His 2021 breakout was fueled in large part by the emergence of his fastball as a high-90s bat-missing terror, and he was absurdly dominant in his debut against the Marlins, striking out 12 of 20 batters faced. It’s fair to wonder how long Rodon can hold up, but after watching that start, I think he’s going to be a top-12 starting pitcher as long as he’s healthy, and that may not be giving him enough credit. There’s a non-zero chance he’s just the best pitcher in baseball right now. 

Keller’s velocity increase was what we expected after offseason reports and what we saw in spring training, but it’s a bit concerning that he still just wasn’t all that impressive. He got four strikeouts among 20 batters faced, with decent but unspectacular whiff rates on baseball all of his pitches. I’m still worried he’s too hittable even when he’s touching 99 mph, and his track record makes it so I don’t have a super-long leash for him. The increased velocity does give him a higher margin for error, and it’s not like he got hit hard in that first start – 86.4 mph average exit velocity – despite the four runs in four innings, so I’ll hold him. 

Megill and Kelly are the two I’m most interested in adding. Both have been serviceable in the past, so the hope is they can become something more than serviceable now. Megill is the priority given that he already had an above-average strikeout rate and 3.87 xERA in 2021, but Kelley now has 20 strikeouts to two walks in 11 innings since the start of spring training. His changeup garnered seven swings and misses on 17 pitches and could play up with the added velocity. Megill looks like a top-60, maybe top-50 pitcher, and Kelly is worth adding in all leagues too. 

Velocity decreases

When it comes to velocity drops, I’m more willing to give the benefit doubt this year than normal given the shortened spring training. It’s possible some guys just didn’t have a chance to get fully up to speed, and I’ve seen some beat writers speculate that this is the point in the spring calendar where a lot of pitchers are working through dead arm as they ramp up. Add in that the weather is colder and you can definitely give guys the benefit of the doubt. 

With that in mind, here are the pitchers whose average fastball velocity is down at least 1.5 mph from last season:

There are some big names there! Ray pitched well despite the lower velocity, though he also struggled with walks, which is always a concern with him. His success last year was tied to his fastball becoming a more effective pitch, which allowed him to challenge hitters in the zone more often. Can he pull off the same trick if this velocity drop sticks? Bad things tend to happen for Ray when he’s issuing too many walks, given his issues with the long ball.

Similarly, Bieber tends to get hit pretty hard when he does tend to get hit, so his velocity dip is especially disconcerting. He’ll still be able to rely on his excellent breaking balls for whiffs even if the fastball velocity is down, but if he’s throwing in the low 90s, that could make his already middling fastball even worse. And, in Bieber’s case, his velocity was already down the last time we saw him late in 2021 as he was coming back from a shoulder injury. If that is still an issue after an entire offseason, that would be a big red flag.

Ultimately, as I said, I’m willing to give guys the benefit of the doubt with early velocity dips. However, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to overlook them entirely. For instance, if Bieber is still averaging around 90 mph with his fastball three starts from now, I’ll be very concerned; ditto for Ray at 92. It’s not that neither can be effective at that level, but it makes it a lot harder to pull off. The margin for error is simply slimmer with less velocity, and that’s true for nearly all pitchers. 

Playing time 

I was very high on Jo Adell coming into the season, so I’m obviously pretty unhappy that he sat two of the first four games. That he sat those games despite Taylor Ward being hurt is especially worrisome. The Angels have talked about using Adell and Brandon Marsh in a platoon, and while I would certainly question the wisdom in using your top two outfield prospects as part-time players, I don’t get a say in the matter. 

Of course, it’s hard to know how much these opening-weekend trends matter moving forward. I’m worried in Adell’s case, but it’s not like I’m ready to jump ship and drop him for Steven Kwan, or anything. And, while Jazz Chisholm wasn’t happy about being on the bench Saturday after his clutch homer Friday, I don’t take that as meaning anything except that Don Mattingly is the kind of manager who wants to give guys days off early in the season. That’s probably the case for a lot of unexpected absences. 

And, in the case of a player like Adell – or Andrew Vaughn or Gleyber Torres, or whomever – it’s worth remembering that none of this is permanent. Those players’ teams might not view them as everyday players right now, but those players have the power to change that. If Vaughn keeps swinging a hot bat, he’s going to find his way into the lineup everyday. Life, uh, finds a way

With that being said, it is unequivocally good news that Steven Kwan has started each of the first four games for the Guardians, including batting second against both a lefty and a righty over the past two games. Ditto for Connor Joe, who started each of the first three games for the Rockies

Pitch mix changes

In theory, a significant change to a player’s pitch mix could be huge news, but it’s hard to know whether that’s the case after just one start. Luis Severino threw just four sliders in his debut, compared to 15 changeups and 11 cutters, a seemingly new pitch for him. Did Severino ditch his slider in his debut because he just didn’t have the feel for it? Is he concerned about the stress it puts on his elbow? Was it just a matchup thing? Or, is he actually replacing his slider with the harder cutter-type pitch he threw more often? It’s just one outing of 65 pitches total, so who knows whether something is a trend or a blip? 

I will say, it’s harder to ignore Kyle Wright‘s change. He went from throwing his sinker 37.6% of the time and his curveball 14.3% of the time in his limited appearances in 2021 to 43.4% and 40.8% usage, respectively. Wright was lauded for his four-pitch mix as a prospect but has consistently struggled with control both in the majors and minors, so maybe simplifying his approach will help. Six strikeouts to one walk in his debut – and another eight Ks with only one walk in 7.1 innings in the spring – suggest it’s a change worth taking seriously. 

Production

The thing is, there just isn’t very much any player can do in one start or one series worth of plate appearances to change how you should feel about them, and their box score results especially shouldn’t be a big factor. Every pitcher in baseball is capable of ripping off a bunch of strikeouts in a random start; every hitter is capable of a six-hit series, and nearly every hitter can run into two homers in three games. 

Sometimes early season performance is indicative of underlying changes to a player’s skill set that will ultimately matter. But, while you might find evidence of that in the box score, anything from the previous categories is likely going to tell a more compelling story. And even then, as I hope I’ve made clear already, you should still be very skeptical about those kinds of early-season trends, too. 

Absent a compelling reason one way or another – a velocity jump from a pitcher or newfound underlying raw power from a hitter, say – you should probably just ignore early-season production for a while. How long? I would say I’m not willing to change how I feel about most players until at least the first month, if not longer unless I have a good reason to. Production usually isn’t a good enough reason. 

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