2017 Fantasy Baseball draft strategy: Big springs could be big signs for Bryce Harper, Jacob deGrom

Spring training stats don’t matter. 

Until they do. 

It can be confusing, I know. We’re dealing with tiny sample sizes, mixed competition levels and players who aren’t necessarily concerned with their results anyways. It’s hard enough to know when a full season’s worth of numbers are real, let alone two weeks’ worth against teams made up of three major-leaguers and six other guys with numbers in the 70’s and 80’s.

This is the inherent problem when it comes to judging spring. The games are happening. They’re real. I’m watching one right now, and Greg Bird just absolutely crushed a homer off Vince Velasquez , continuing his red-hot spring. It’s hard to watch baseball and not be convinced that what you’re seeing matters, no matter how many times you hear that spring training doesn’t. 

The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Though I lean more towards spring training results not mattering, there can be process outcomes that can certainly matter: mechanical changes, velocity jumps, plate discipline improvements, etc. There’s no guarantee these trends turn into changes that last, but they’re at least worth noting. 

Scott White has been giving his spring training thoughts multiple times a week -- here’s Wednesday’s, focusing on Koda Glover’s rise -- and Heath Cummings presented six spring stats that matter last week, so now it’s my turn. 

Five opinions spring has made me change 

Bryce Harper is going to have a monster season 

Bryce Harper RF / Washington
ADP: 9

There aren’t many things as viscerally satisfying in baseball as Bryce Harper really getting into one. His command of the strike zone was still impressive in 2016, but what really separated his MVP season in 2015 from last year was that he just didn’t hit the ball with the same kind of authority. Some kind of injury -- never publicly acknowledged, but discussed in the kind of hushed tones reserved for state secrets -- may have been the culprit, but either way, his ISO fell from .319 to .198, his hard-hit rate fell from 40.9 to 34.1 percent and his average exit velocity dropped from 91.4 to 89.5 MPH. Basically, he was one of the two or three best power hitters in baseball in 2015, and a pretty middle-of-the-road one in 2016.

And now he’s doing this again, this one off a lefty. Harper has six homers in the spring, with a .795 slugging percentage, while walking more often than he has struck out in 16 games. It’s just spring, but Harper looks to be over whatever plagued him last season. I still have Harper as the least safe of the first-round picks, because he’s only been an elite Fantasy option once. However, his ceiling is higher than anyone west of Anaheim, and I’m feeling more confident in his chances of hitting that ceiling with each spring blast. 

Jacob deGrom can be an ace 

Jacob deGrom SP / N.Y. Mets
ADP: 61

The results for deGrom are good enough, with a 2.93 ERA and 17 strikeouts to two walks in 15 1/3 innings. However, there is a lot more optimism surrounding him in New York Mets camp than at this time last year, when he posted a 1.62 ERA in the spring despite dealing with diminished velocity following a deep playoff run. deGrom is well rested coming into this spring, and has been firing bullets, hitting 97 MPH at times this spring. He pitched well enough last season, posting a 3.04 ERA in 148 innings of work but dealt with elbow issues that ultimately required surgery. With his elbow healthy and deGrom seemingly rediscovering his mid-to-high 90’s fastball, a return to his 2015 form seems like a good bet. 

Danny Duffy is no sure thing 

Danny Duffy SP / Kansas City
ADP: 97

The results are mostly fine, but as I wrote earlier this week, Duffy’s diminished velocity is reason for concern, if not panic. He doesn’t have a long track record to fall back on, and crashed into a wall late last season, sporting a 5.50 ERA with nine home runs in six starts in September as his velocity trailed off. That he hasn’t recovered that velocity in March isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it would be weird not to note it. Especially given Duffy’s own limited track record. 

Shelby Miller’s still matters 

Shelby Miller SP / Arizona
ADP: 428

I’m not saying you need to draft Shelby Miller , even with your last pick. There are plenty of starting pitchers with upside available late in drafts. Miller hasn’t even been particularly good this spring, having allowed nine runs in 11 innings of work. However, he has also struck out 18 batters in those 11 innings of work, and he has really only had one bad outing, when he gave up six runs in 2 2/3 innings on March 7. But the real reason why Miller may still matter isn’t about the results, but the way he has looked on his way to them.

Miller has averaged 97.0 MPH on his fastball on 76 pitches this spring, per BrooksBaseball.com, an increase of 3.5 MPH from last spring. That’s a huge jump in one spring, and the 97.3 he averaged on March 17 against the Mariners is the highest average fastball velocity Miller has ever had in a start, and he has averaged 96 MPH or more just five times back in the middle of the summer of 2015. This is, potentially, a massive change.

Miller has never lacked for velocity, but what he has shown in the spring is elite velocity. Only three starters averaged more than 97 MPH with their fastballs last season, and velocity tends to climb as the season goes on. Miller has also largely ditched his changeup in the spring, having thrown just three of them in three starts tracked, which is another potentially noteworthy change, because that pitch his been his biggest problem in the majors, surrendering a .225 ISO to opposing hitters with it.

Miller has a lot to prove to Fantasy players after the way last season went, especially because he was never quite as impressive as the scouting reports indicated coming up. Miller was a solid, unspectacular pitcher, but there could be something spectacular about him these days, and his velocity jump is certainly worth monitoring. This is a pitcher with pedigree and a decent track record, who may have figured something out. It’s worth a late-round pick so you can get a look. 

A.J. Reed deserves a chance 

A.J. Reed 1B / Houston
ADP: N/A

Reed failed to impress in his time in the majors last season, posting a .532 OPS in 141 plate appearances, and he won’t get another chance at the start of this season because he has already been sent to Triple-A. That’s not a surprise, but it is a disappointment, because he absolutely tore the cover off the ball in the spring, hitting .306/.444/.667 with nine walks and 10 strikeouts in 36 at-bats.

With the exception of his limited time in the majors, all Reed has done in professional baseball is rake, sporting a .979 career minor-league OPS, including a .924 mark at Triple-A last season. Yuli Gurriel will get the first chance to man the first base job in Houston, and the Houston Astros are invested enough that they’ll give him some leash. However, he looked only slightly better than Reed last season and, at 32, doesn’t have much margin for error. He needs to start hitting quickly and, if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see Reed before long. In a deeper league, Reed is worth stashing, and I’m definitely keeping an eye on the Astros’ first base situation as the season gets going. 

Five opinions I haven’t budged on

Matt Harvey is too big a risk to take 

Matt Harvey SP / N.Y. Mets
ADP: 136

Maybe Harvey will start to find his velocity as he gets warmed up. He reportedly hit 95-96 a few times in his last outing, so things seem to be moving in the right direction as the spring goes on. Maybe by the time the Mets break camp, Harvey will be sitting 95 as in the past and there won’t be much to worry about.

However, touching 95-96 isn’t the goal for Harvey. Even last season, which was a disaster for him by any measure, Harvey was still able to get up to 98-99 despite the fact that he lost more than one MPH off his average fastball from 2015 to 2016. Harvey posted a career-low 8.2 swinging strike rate on his fastball last season, and while his slider remained an effective swing-and-miss pitch, his curveball and changeup both posted the lowest swinging strike rates of his career.

Harvey was less effective than ever with more of his arsenal, and it’s hard not to think his lost velocity played a part in that. In fact, Harvey’s fastball velocity has been tied to its effectiveness, as this chart from FanGraphs.com shows:

Harvey was hurt last season, and that’s a reasonable explanation for his struggles. I’m just not convinced he’s ever going to get back to the level he lived at before last season, and nothing we’ve seen this spring has changed that opinion.

There comes a point in the draft where the reward outweighs the risk, but I don’t think it’s at his current ADP of 136. 

Jason Heyward is not going to bounce back 

Jason Heyward RF / Chi. Cubs
ADP: 260

I don’t want to hang on spring training numbers too much, but the much-discussed changes Heyward has made to his swing in the offseason don’t seem to have paid off. He is just 5 for 40 in the spring, with 10 strikeouts and only three walks. I’m not convinced Heyward has just lost everything in his mid-20’s, and his strikeout and walk numbers remained mostly static last season, so he isn’t totally hopeless. However, as ESPN.com notes, Heyward has made some noise in batting practice even if scouts see largely the same ineffective swing that made Heyward such a bust last season.

Heyward needs to prove that he’s back, and he hasn’t done that for me. 

Michael Pineda is as frustrating as ever 

Michael Pineda SP / N.Y. Yankees
ADP: 190

Is this the year Pineda figures it out? I’d rather not have to try to answer that question, because Pineda defies so much of what we think we know about pitching.

Pineda has control, having posted walk rates of 3.1 and 7.0 percent over the last two seasons. But does he have command? Does Pineda, in fact, work too much in the strike zone, increasingly his chances of racking up strikeouts but also leaving him vulnerable to the long ball? He was one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball in 2016, racking up 207 in just 175 2/3 innings, however he was also tagged for 27 homers.

Is it all bad luck, as his impressive peripherals suggest? I’m not convinced, and he has largely looked like the same guy in spring so far, capable of blinding brilliance at times, but ultimately disappointing. I’m not sure what Pineda could do in the spring to change my opinion in that regard, though I guess it’s a good sign that he hasn’t given up a home run yet. Pineda remains the ultimate roll of the dice, but I fear he’ll always leave his Fantasy owners wanting more. 

Brad Miller is going to be a bust 

Brad Miller SS / Tampa Bay
ADP: 158

Miller was a pleasant surprise last season, as he clubbed 30 homers in a breakout season for the Tampa Bay Rays . He made some real improvements to his game, upping his flyball rate to 36.7 percent and increasing his hard-hit average to 35.1 percent, and he showed some signs of figuring it out during an impressive spring a year ago. If that spring was a sign of things to come, then this spring should make you very nervous if you’re invested in Miller keeping it up. He is hitting just .195, but more concerning are the 13 strikeouts to just one walk in 41 at-bats.

The bigger concern for Miller is that there was some flukiness to his success in 2016, and he was going to need to show signs of an improved skill set to make up for any possible regression. He posted an unsustainably high 20.4 percent HR/FB rate, a rate that looks even less repeatable when you remember Miller spends half of his games in the unforgiving environment of Tropicana Field.  So far, Miller hasn’t shown signs of an improved skill set, and I remain concerned he will be just a one-year wonder. 

Pablo Sandoval is still not interesting

Pablo Sandoval 3B / Boston
ADP: 272

To prove I’m not just looking at spring numbers, I just cannot bring myself to care very much that Sandoval is having a nice spring. He is hitting .349 with three homers in 14 games, which is nice, but Sandoval also has just one walk to 11 strikeouts, and though he is apparently in much-improved shape, I’m just not sure there’s much upside here even if he has figured something out. Sandoval hasn’t hit more than 20 homers since 2011, and he hasn’t driven in more than 79 runs since 2009.

There’s a chance Sandoval can turn back the clock, but he wasn’t a particularly impressive Fantasy option even in the best of times. The third base landscape is just too crowded for me to care about a potential Sandoval bounceback. 

Fantasy Writer

Though he can be found covering three different sports depending on the time of year, there is one unifying theme in how Chris Towers approaches sports; "Where's the evidence?" It doesn't matter how outlandish... Full Bio

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