Fantasy Baseball: Eight second-half sleepers starring A.J. Pollock, Tyler Mahle
Looking for some surprise stars for the second half? Chris Towers gives eight of his favorite under-the-radar picks
Technically, we're just a little bit past the halfway point of the baseball season. We're more than halfway through the Fantasy season, too, especially for those of you in points leagues with playoff spots to fight for.
Still, the All-Star break is a perfect time to hit pause, reflect on what's happened so far — check out— and try to figure out where we might be going. With that in mind, here are my sleeper picks for the second half, featuring a few former stars with a chance to make a surprise impact, as well as some lesser known players with more upside than you might think.
A.J. Pollock CF
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #11 • Age: 31
Pollock should be back with the Dodgers for the first series after the break, and I still think there's a chance he can be an impact player. Injuries have obviously been an issue, and not just because they have kept him off the field; Pollock was a shell of himself after coming back from a fractured thumb in 2018, and clearly wasn't right while dealing with an infection in his elbow to start this season. The last time we saw him healthy, however, Pollock was enjoying one of the best stretches of his career, with nearly a career-best OPS for any 40-game stretch of his career. That it also coincided with a rise in his flyball rate and hard-hit rate shouldn't be too surprising, as Pollock reworked his swing in the offseason before 2018 precisely to generate more power and was hitting .293/.349/.620 through the first 40 games of 2018. If he can rediscover that form or anything close, he could be a league-winner down the stretch.
Tyler Mahle SP
CIN Cincinnati • #30 • Age: 24
Mahle actually looks a lot like one of 2019's biggest breakouts did around this time last year. Here's Mahle's 2019 numbers compared to Shane Bieber's 2018. In 2019, Mahle has a 25.5 K%, 6.4 BB%, 44.2 GB%, 3.84 FIP, and 3.96 SIERA; in 2018, Bieber had a: 24.3 K%, 4.7 BB%, 46.0 GB%, 3.30 FIP, and 3.45 SIERA. Bieber was better, to be sure, but the gap in their xFIP and SIERA can be at least partially explained by the inflated offensive environment Mahle finds himself in. One key for Bieber's emergence has been a willingness to trust his secondary pitches, dropping his fastball usage from 57.3% to 44.2% over the last year. Mahle doesn't quite have the confidence in his new cutter, changeup and curveball to go that far yet, but he has dipped his fastball rate from 67.9% in 2018 to 57.8% in 2019. And that has continued to fall as the season has gone on, with Mahle using his fastball close to half the time in June and July. There's room for a poor man's Bieber breakout.
CLE Cleveland • #31 • Age: 29
If you've been playing Fantasy baseball for a while, I won't need to re-introduce Salazar to you. But, if you can't quite remember all the way back into the hazy distance of 2017, here's a quick rundown: Before a series of shoulder injuries, Salazar was one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game, recording a 33.0% rate in 2017, with rates in the 27% range prior. That typically came with some command issues and a mid-to-high 3.00s ERA, making him a very valuable Fantasy option. Salazar is up to Double-A in his rehab assignment, and the plan right now is to use him as a starter. He threw an immaculate inning in a recent appearance, so the stuff is still there. Let's just hope he can hold up.
TOR Toronto • #9 • Age: 24
Jansen has already woken up, but Fantasy players haven't quite caught on, judging by how widely available it is. Jansen hasn't struck out since June 21, hitting .286/.400/.932 in the final 12 games before the All-Star break. Jansen was one of our favorite catchers coming into the season, largely because of his contact skills, and we're seeing that come to fruition, finally. If he's still available in your league, go get him.
ATL Atlanta • #62 • Age: 23
The Braves are in first place despite getting very little from the back end of their rotation. The most recent failure has been 21-year-old Bryse Wilson, who has been tagged for six runs in 10.1 innings in his two most recent starts. We'll see if he sticks coming out of the All-Star break — he could be a sleeper himself — but I still want to see Toussaint get an opportunity. Toussaint has great stuff, and it has led to a strong 12.7% swinging strike rate, however he's still struggled with wildness. If he ever gets that under control, the upside is huge, so I'll buy into Toussaint if he gets back into the rotation at some point.
Justin Smoak 1B
TOR Toronto • #14 • Age: 32
Smoak's value has just about bottomed out, as he's hitting just .161/.316/.387 in nine games since coming back from the IL. However, even during this slump, he has a 15.7% walk rate and a .226 ISO, so it's not all bad. In fact, in some ways, Smoak has been better than ever in 2019, as he sports the lowest strikeout rate and highest walk rate of his career, while matching his best ever expected wOBA, per BaseballSavant.com. Smoak is seeing the ball well, and he's crushing it when he makes contact, but a .224 BABIP is holding him back. If that normalizes, we could see a huge second-half coming.
SD San Diego • #29 • Age: 26
If you throw hard and get lots of strikeouts, I'm going to like you, and Lamet throws hard and gets lots of strikeouts. He has struck out 28.9% of opposing batters for his career, and even during a 2017 that saw him post a 4.57 ERA, his 4.03 SIERA suggests a much more useful pitcher moving forward. The stuff has been there so far in his return from Tommy John surgery, which makes him an intriguing option heading out of the break.
HOU Houston • Age: 26
Sure, let's go with another guy who isn't even in a rotation. James got off to a really rough start in April, sporting a 7.36 ERA, but he's been striking out just about everyone he has seen since; he has a 39.1% strikeout rate since the start of May. That comes with a less-than ideal 4.20 ERA, but that number is inflated by a recent four-run blowup. James has incredible stuff, as he showed in racking up 19 strikeouts in 15.1 innings across three starts last season, and if the Astros ever decide to try him out in the rotation — where they could actually use some help — he could make a big impact.
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