Saturday, May 21, 2022

Fantasy Baseball: Shane Bieber highlights sell-high pitchers as the weather heats up

If you’re playing Fantasy Baseball right now, chances are, you’re feeling pretty good about your pitching staff. We’ve got breakout pitchers all over the place, to the point where I’m not 100% sure I’ve got the room on some of my teams to take a flier on the likes of Josh Winder and his 1.61 ERA through his first 22.1 innings of work. If I was going to take a flier on him, it would require dropping someone with significant upside of his own, like Hunter Greene

Offense is down around the league, and I went into why that is and the effect it’s having on Fantasy hitters here, but the impact is also being felt among pitchers, as well. In the past, a 3.00 ERA was considered a potential ace mark; now, we’re getting questions about why Sandy Alcantara and his 3.03 ERA have been underwhelming. 

And that isn’t necessarily an overreaction. Among 56 qualifying pitchers, Alcantara ranks 30th in ERA, and if you lower the threshold to 20 innings minimum, he’s still 52nd out of 129 pitchers; not bad, but pretty middling. Strikeouts remain at or near historic highs – especially when you account for no pitchers hitting – and home runs are way down, leading to one of the worst run-scoring environments we’ve seen in a while — I wrote about the impact that’s having on hitters here

However, that environment isn’t static. The new, less-bouncy ball, introduced last season (sporadically, as it turned out) has led to a decrease in homers, but it seems like the biggest difference between 2021 and 2022 has been the introduction of humidifiers to store the baseballs in every park for the first time. About one-third of the league used humidifiers last season, and Coors Field has famously had a humidor installed for years, which led to a significant decrease in offense at the park. 

So, you might think that the ubiquity of the humidifiers will lead to decreased offense moving forward, just like we’ve seen so far, but that may not be the case. The humidifiers are seemingly leading to reduced offense now because the balls are being stored in a more humid environment than when the games are being played. As the weather warms up, the relative humidity during games will likely be higher than where the balls are stored, which should lead to a livelier ball that travels further. 

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(If you want more details about that whole situation, this piece by Eno Sarris from a few weeks back explains it all well.)

Which is to say, you may not want to get too comfortable with your pitching staff. In an environment where the ball isn’t traveling as far, someone like Merrill Kelly might be able to thrive without getting a ton of strikeouts, because he limits base runners and keeps the ball on the ground well enough. However, he’s benefited greatly from having allowed zero home runs, and if the ball starts flying out more easily, Kelly seems like an obvious candidate to be hurt, and he isn’t alone – other relatively low strikeout rate pitchers like Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery and even potentially the likes of Logan Webb and Walker Buehler could expect to see worse results moving forward.

That could also be true of the likes of Triston McKenzie and Bruce Zimmerman, pitchers who have struggled with hard contact home runs in the past. Balls that are dying on the warning track could turn into homers and doubles in the future, and that could really hurt them. 

Here are four pitchers I might be looking to sell high on based on this early offensive environment: 

Shane Bieber

Bieber is one of the pitchers I’m most worried about. Partially, that’s because I was pretty worried about him coming into the season, and the reasons I was worried have borne out. He hasn’t recovered the velocity he lost last season, averaging 90.6 mph with his fastball compared to 92.8 a year ago (and 94.1 in 2020), and his velocity was actually down to 89.9 mph in his most recent start. 

A few weeks ago, Bieber told reporters he wasn’t worried about the drop in fastball velocity: “I feel good. I’m getting good results. Do I want to throw harder? Yeah. It’ll come.” Bieber speculated that it might be because of the shorted spring training, and he and the team’s pitching coaches identified mechanical tweaks cause by his shoulder injury last season, and while he may yet figure it out, the fact that his velocity has dipped even since talking about that is worrisome.

And it’s worrisome because Bieber’s fastball has always been a pitch that he mostly gets by with. He allowed a .347 xWOBA with the pitch in 2019 and a .320 mark in 2021; the outlier was 2020 when it was .290. He also had a career-high whiff rate of 25.4%, while averaging 94.1 mph and a 2,356-RPM spin rate; this season, his spin rate is down to 2,184 RPM along with the velocity. Bieber’s cutter hasn’t been an acceptable fastball replacement over the years either, so he might be left with a really bad fastball that he’s trying to overcome with his slider and curveball.

That’s not impossible, but Bieber has, even at his best, spent more time outside of the strike zone than most pitchers. That’s how he gets so many whiffs with his slider and curveball, his primary putaway pitches, but he’s got his lowest called strike rate ever so far, making it harder to get to the point where he can put hitters away. 

Bieber gets hit hard when he gets hit, so if he’s going to struggle to be an elite strikeout pitcher, things could get ugly in a hurry. I’m not giving up on Bieber, but I’m less confident in him than just about any other pitcher ranked in my top 24, and he’s dropped to 16th in both H2H points and Roto. I’m not far from pushing the likes of Pablo Lopez and Clayton Kershaw ahead of him, and Dylan Cease and Shane McClanahan may not be far behind, either. I’ll need to see some positive signs in the next few starts, and Bieber is one guy I’d be looking to sell based on name brand value – before that name loses value. 

Walker Buehler

Buehler put up his best season ever in 2021 despite posting his lowest strikeout rate, and he’s doing the trick again in the early going. He’s always been very good at limiting hard contact, which is how Buehler has managed to overperform his peripherals pretty consistently. 

However, there are some real warning signs here, because Buehler’s fastball looks like it could be a real detriment at this point. He’s lost nearly 200 RPM in spin from the pitch from 2021 – nearly 300 from 2020 – and he’s seen his metrics with the pitch get consistently worse: He had a 26.1% whiff rate and .201 expected wOBA with the fastball in 2020, but those numbers are 13.9% and .476 this season. And the actual results haven’t been particularly good, either; hitters have a .359 average and .563 slugging percentage against the fastball. 

Buehler’s been able to survive that because he’s got a deep, varied arsenal, but his CSW% (Called-plus-Swinging strike rate) is down to a career-low 27.7%, which helps explain the career-low 21.8% strikeout rate. 

Buehler sports a likely unsustainable 86.4% strand rate and 5.6% HR/FB rate, which have helped cover up for those shortcomings, but it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep that up. I’ve bet against Buehler and been wrong before, but there are more worrying signs here than we’ve seen before. 

Merrill Kelly

We saw a similar stretch from Kelly in 2020, when he posted a 2.58 ERA with a 23.2% K rate and 4.0% BB rate; he has a 1.22 ERA with a 23% K rate and 6.1% walk rate this season. Kelly has made some notable changes since then, making his changeup his most-used secondary pitch while limiting his curveball and sinker usage, which are interesting adjustments that could make his current strikeout rate a bit more sustainable. Given his groundball tendencies, that could give him a pretty high floor, but I still think there’s a ceiling on how good Kelly can be with a roughly average strikeout rate if the home run rate normalizes even a little bit. Kelly definitely isn’t a “sell-by-any-means” player, but I think he’s likely to be within spitting distance of an average ERA when things look a bit more normal. 

Josiah Gray 

I like Gray quite a bit, and he ended up being one of the final round picks for me in a bunch of my leagues, so I’m happy with what I’ve gotten from him so far. And I like the skill set a lot, with one exception: He’s got a bad fastball. His four-seamer had a .409 expected wOBA allowed last season and he gave up 12 home runs in 13 starts with it; this season, he has a .404 xwOBA with the pitch but has surrendered four homers in six starts. Expected stats are out of whack right now because of the offensive environment – they’re calibrated to historical norms, so if the ball isn’t flying as far, historical expectations don’t matter as much. However, if the ball is likely to be livelier moving forward than it has been, then that still portends potential struggles for the talented youngster. He already throws it less than half of the time, and I’m not sure he can limit the usage much more than that considering he already struggles with control at times. 

Gray isn’t doomed to failure by any means – he’s young and talented, and I don’t mind acquiring him in Dynasty leagues because he could have some Bieber-esque runs ahead of him. But, based on his current skill set, I think things are likely to go south for him. I moved him for Ramon Laureano in one league, to give some context for the kind of return I’d be happy with. 

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